Voice in fiction is crucial—but also elusive. First, writers must consider their own authorial voices, then the story’s specific narrative voice, and last but certainly not least character voices. In fact, if you’re writing fiction, the most important voices on the page technically aren’t yours, but your characters’. All of ’em. And they all need to be authentic, entertaining, and different from one another. They all need to be unique.
Creating unique character voices is one of the great challenges of writing fiction. We’re not simply talking about writing good dialogue here (although that plays a major role). We’re also not talking just about developing strong and interesting characters (although that’s a critical foundation). What we’re talking about is taking both your characters and your dialogue that extra mile to make their voices so distinctive and memorable audiences will recognize who is speaking even without dialogue tags or other references.
Last month, I put out a call, asking you all to tell me what topics you’d most like me to post about. (Thank you for all the enthusiastic responses and the inspiration!) Today, I’m writing the first post in response to your requests, this one from AngieElle, who noted:
I would love a post about distinctive character voices.
This is a topic dear to my heart, since creating unique character voices is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. Sometimes discovering a character’s voice on the page is the only key you need in order for a story to just take off and start writing itself. Other times, finding a character’s voice can be trickier—and until you find it, nothing about the story seems to work.
Today, let’s take a look at the topic of unique character voices from a few different angles and finish up with five tools you can use in your own writing to help you find your characters’ voices.
9 Considerations When Designing Your Character Voices
Vibrant character voices arise out of vibrant characters. If the voice isn’t working, then the problem may be the foundational issue of the characters themselves. It’s hard to write zippy dialogue for pancake characters. Therefore, gaining a better understanding of your characters is one of the best places to start in creating their voices. The fortunate flipside of this is that if you can come up with an engaging voice for a pancake character, you’re automatically more than halfway to fixing all of that character’s problems.
As you begin contemplating (or troubleshooting) your character voices, keep the following nine aspects in mind. All will influence how the characters speak—and what they speak about.
Often, when we think of voice, the first connotation is that of personality in its most general sense. You can approach personality in many ways, including via personality theory systems such as MBTI and the Enneagram (which we discussed earlier this month).
For starters, however, simply consider your characters’ most defining traits.
- Are they extroverted or introverted?
- Quiet or boisterous?
- Idealistic or cynical?
- Kind or cruel?
One question I always ask when interviewing my characters during their initial development is, “What is the first thing people notice about this character?” Voice will both influence and be influenced by the answer.
Next, you can consider what, in Enneagram terms, is called your character’s “stance.” This has to do with your character’s preferred directional attitude when dealing with the world. This will influence not just what your character says, but when she chooses to speak, and whom she is most likely to engage with.
Is your character:
1. Aggressive (with a forward emphasis, focusing on the future and moving toward conflict)?
2. Withdrawn (with a backward emphasis, focusing on the past and stepping back from conflict)?
3. Dependent (with a lateral emphasis, focusing on the present and reaching out to others for support in conflict)?
(For those interested in the Enneagram connection, the aggressive types are Three, Seven, and Eight; the withdrawn types are Four, Five, and Nine; and the dependent types are One, Two, and Six.)
3. Harmonic Style
Another useful Enneagram categorization is that of a character’s harmonic style. In their book The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson explain:
The Harmonic Groups tell us how we cope with conflict and difficulty: how we respond when we do not get what we want. … They reveal the fundamental way that our personality defends against loss and disappointment.
This is specifically useful to know in weighing what your characters most value in themselves and how they will try to communicate this through their dialogue.
Does your character respond most often with:
1. Competence (looking for logical and practical solutions and answers)?
2. Reactivity (pushing back proactively in the moment to make space before stopping to consider other options)?
3. Positivism (choosing to look at the bright side and putting a positive spin on things whenever possible)?
(For those interested in the Enneagram connection, the competent types are One, Three, and Five; the reactive types are Four, Six, and Eight; and the positive types are Two, Seven, and Nine.)
>>Click here to read “5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters“
4. Defensive Reflex
Dialogue in a story can be viewed as a sort of contest between characters, especially since much of it will be conflict driven. One character goes on the offense; the other defends; and back and forth they go. In designing character voices, it is particularly valuable to consider each character’s default defensive reflex. These reflexes will be interrelated with a character’s stance and harmonic group (above) but can also be more specific.
Does your character:
- Blush and go silent?
- Get mad and push back?
- Respond calmly while boiling on the inside?
- Flare up at first, then calm down and apologize?
- Give the benefit of the doubt and hold space?
- Judge immediately and feel offended?
Other factors in creating your characters’ voices are more practical. How old is this character? A five-year-old will obviously have an entirely different vocabulary, cadence, and conversational style than will a high schooler or a retiree.
By the same token, consider the character’s level of education. A professor or scientist will speak very differently from someone who dropped out of high school. Depending on the character’s self-consciousness around his level of education (whether very high or very low), this may also influence how he tries to speak.
For example, someone with several doctorate degrees might be arrogant in showing off his vocabulary or self-deprecating in trying not to rub his intelligence in others’ faces. Alternatively, someone with little education may try to cover it up by speaking more properly than her background suggests—to various effects.
Where is your character from and what is his ethnic and geographic background? A character who was born in India but lives in New York City will present interesting layers within his communication style. A character’s regional history may also suggest to you interesting word choices. The slang in South Boston is not the same as in London, which is not the same as that in the dales of Scotland or the ranch country of Texas.
Regional considerations will not always include dialect, but when a dialect is appropriate, you will be presented with both new challenges and new opportunities for your characters’ voices. On the one hand, you will need to portray the dialect accurately, both in respect to those who actually speak it and because readers will spot and reject inauthenticity. On the other hand, a colorful dialect done well can instantly elevate a character and her voice to a whole new level of interest and memorability.
Finally, consider your character’s job. Every profession, no matter how humble, offers its own unique way of speaking. Particular slang as well as specialized industry terms may creep into your character’s voice or even entirely permeate it, depending on his level of occupational immersion.
5 Solid Tools to Create Unique Character Voices
Once you have examined your characters from every angle and considered what about them offers opportunities to distinguish their voices from one another’s, you can level up by employing several useful tools. To be effective, all of these tools must be used deftly. To choose one particular tool and to use it in every dialogue exchange may well push the effect from “original and memorable” to “cartoonish and self-indulgent.”
All of these tools are meant to be used to achieve verisimilitude. They’re here to help you create characters who are larger-than-life but who sound real. The moment a character’s dialogue begins to sound repetitive or rehearsed, you’d do better to dial back on the originality and let them talk just like everybody else for a bit.
I’m going to use the characters in Stranger Things for examples, since I feel the show does a particularly good job creating unique character voices for every member of its cast.
1. Dialogue Tics
The easiest way to bring individuality to a character’s speech is to create a dialogue tic that is used only for that character. This could be almost anything.
- It could be a favored word (or a word the character refuses to use).
- It could be a character’s favored volume for speaking.
- It could be how many words a character chooses to use or not use.
2. Personalized Slang/Swears
A easy way to slip a little originality into each character’s voice is to exclusively assign a specific bit of slang or a favorite swear word or euphemism to each character. Not only will this mark each character in your audience’s minds, but it can also be an opportunity for characterization.
As a personal example, in my Regency-era gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, I kept a list of which words each character used. My country-boy protagonist Will would constrain his outbursts to terms such as “ruddy” and “hang it,” while my eight-year-old Cockney pickpocket would let loose with all the historical slang available to her.
3. Metaphor Families
When discussing dialogue in his book Secrets of Story, Matt Bird recommends what he calls “metaphor families.”
The aspect of your characters’ lives that determines which metaphors, curses, and exclamations they use. The source of this is usually their job, their home region, or their psychological state. More rarely, it’s their career ambition or a hidden proclivity.
Even if all your characters come from the same place, family, or job, you can still craft each character’s dialogue around unique analogies that offer glimpses of the character’s perspective as well as bringing overall color to the dialogue.
A catchphrase is a word or phrase repeated by a character throughout the story. This could be a simple exclamation, such as “Zounds!”, or it could be a more meaningful statement that grows in importance the more it is uttered (such as Captain America’s “I could do this all day”).
Catchphrases can be a double-edged sword. On the one side, they can help make a character’s voice memorable. On the other, they can quickly feel overdone. Used cautiously, however, they can lend definition to a character’s voice in a story.
5. Rhythms and Phrasings
Although the above tools and considerations are valuable in crafting character voices that pop off the page, they’re ultimately all window dressing. The truth of a character’s voice is found not just in the choice of individual words, but in the construction of the dialogue’s rhythm and phrasings.
Does your character:
- Ramble in run-on sentences (like Anne of Green Gables)?
- Speak in clipped, staccato fragments?
- End statements decisively, challengingly, or open-endedly?
More than any other tool in your toolbox, this is the one that will allow you to create truly unique and vibrant character voices. Try to make the way every character speaks slightly from every other character. One character may be posh and refined, using perfect grammar. Another may be nearly incomprehensible with dropped consonants and obscure slang. Everything about the character—from background to emotionality—will determine how the voice comes across on the page.
Apart from more general concerns of crafting the shape of your story through plot, arguably nothing affects your audience’s perception of your story more than voice. This applies, of course, to the narrative voice—but the narrative voice will, in turn, be impacted by the POV characters’ dialogue voices as well. The more distinctive, appropriate, and authentic each character’s voice is, the more these descriptors will apply to your story as a whole.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How would you describe the character voices in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!
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The post Top 14 Tips and Tools for Creating Unique Character Voices appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland