Voices: Getting Your Characters To Sound Different

That’s right, I’m back again with Why Am I Taking Writing Advice From You, Again?

I don’t know, you chose to click on this link and I’m not your supervisor.

But while I’m not published except on this, the best website in the entire series of tubes, I have been writing for a long time and I’ve picked up a few things here and there.

Now, remember, the important thing about writing advice is to absorb as much of it as you can, and then figure out what works for you. If what I’ve got here doesn’t help, stop using it and look for other methods. But I hope some of this can keep your characters from sounding like a bad off-off-off Broadway one man show.

In Your First Draft, It’s Okay If Everyone Sounds Like the Same Person, and That Person is You

Anything goes in a first draft. Whatever helps to get all the sand in your sandbox. Name all your characters Bob. Start writing without knowing the ending. Start writing from the ending. Write the whole thing in Papyrus, no one gives a shit, except God who is weeping but whatever.

While I am a big believer in working to make your characters sound unique, I’m an even bigger believer of saving that for a later draft. In my first drafts, everyone sounds like me. My cadence, my sentence length, my swearing. I do this is because first drafts are quantity over quality, but that’s not the only reason.

In my first time writing fresh dialogue I don’t want to split my attention. My sole focus is on the substance of the sentences. What the character is saying, what the character actually means, what the character wants to say but can’t so is instead dancing around it by saying other things. That sort of stuff. I’m putting the meat on the table. The seasoning can come later.

Writing this way might also save you time later on down the road. Say you have a character that you’ve decided is going to be a charming Southern Belle type and you spend your first draft writing heavily into that. All ‘y’all’s and ‘bless your heart’s and whatnot. But then as the story comes to life in front of you realize that it would work better if she wasn’t Southern. She should be from Chicago, or England, or Jersey. Well, now you’re spending an entire draft going through her dialogue and untangling all that drawl.

I mean, you’re probably going to be doing lots of editing passes, anyway, might as well be able to take one off your plate.

Know Your Characters

I don’t mean doing one of those 238 Questions To Fully Know Your Character! things. I actually really hate those. It’s too much work for a character I might only know for one book! They’re a full grown adult doing adult things, I doubt the fact that their best friend in kindergarten was named Rodney is going to change anything.

For me, the dialogue edit is pretty late in the process. I’ve already done the first draft, and then all the macro edits which are usually drafts two through four for me. The setting is in stone, the plot makes sense, the pacing works, and the characters have been fully hammered out to what I want them to be. To get their dialogue down I don’t need to rank their top five favorite colors or specify their spirit animal. I’m taking the basics and putting them in front of me so I know how that’s going to change the way they speak. Basics like where they are from, age, education level, if they have a job or a hobby that comes with its own specific lingo, etc. These are going to form the base level of your characters speech pattern.

Now let’s talk about the fun stuff.

Verbosity

That’s a big word for ‘uses too many fucking words,’ and it might be one of the easiest tricks to getting your characters to sound different. Look at your character. Someone with an anxious personality who doesn’t like the quiet might ramble a lot while another character, equally anxious, might say as few words as possible because they’re afraid of sounding stupid. Confident characters can go in either direction, too – so confident they know they only need to say a few word to get the point across or confident in their voice and wanting to hear it a lot.

What I’m getting at is no matter what sort of collection of characters you have, you can find reasons to change the average length of their sentences. Having a character who speaks in short bursts right next to another character who can’t seem to find the point in under thirty seconds will immediately give the reader the sense that these are two different people without even worrying about the other stuff.

How Do They Feel About Big Words?

Are they pretentious as fuck and like using the biggest words possible every time to make sure everyone knows how smart they are?

Are they all of that but also very stupid and constantly use the big words wrong?

Are they smart but don’t need to advertise it and talk plainly?

Education level is an important jumping off point but I think there’s a lot more nuance in the character’s attitude to their own intelligence. The guy who’s smart and wants to show it off is going to sound very different from the guy who’s smart and so involved in his work he simply forgets that not everyone knows what a quark is.

Backstory Trauma

I’m not suddenly changing my mind and telling you to answer all 238 questions. But if you’ve already written a character with backstory trauma you have to think about how that’s going to change the way your character talks. Bill Denbrough in Stephen King’s It had a stutter as a child, which he had to work to grow out of, which led him to talking very slowly and deliberately in a Hollywood where most people motormouth around their cocaine, which led his wife Audra to be interested in him in the first place because his way of talking was so unusual.

If your character has any sort of trauma in their backstory, think about how that might change the way they talk.

Do They Swear, and How?

There are so many different ways to swear that it’s not just a binary.

In one of the things I’ve written, I’ve got a character who doesn’t like to swear. When she’s upset, she says stuff like ‘gosh darn’ and ‘hamburgers.’ The one or two times she says something worse, it’s an almost visible, physical effort to get herself to say it.

There’s another character who doesn’t swear not because he doesn’t want to but because it’s not in his nature. He drops something like a ‘holy shit’ or a ‘God damn it’ when the situation calls for it but otherwise keeps his language clean because that’s who he is.

Another character swears all the fucking time, but it’s primarily peppering in ‘fuck’s and ‘shit’s across all her sentences. She grew up rough and has language to match. She’s not trying to prove any point, swearing is simply a part of her.

And yet another character who also swears a lot, but he gets fucking creative with it. It’s an art to him. He’s not swearing, he’s crafting blue masterpieces. Swearing, for him, is a weapon to get a rise out of people.

There’s always been such a taboo about swearing that I think even now it can be an underutilized tool for personalizing characters. Even if you can’t write rough language because you’re publishing YA, or simply don’t want to write that sort of stuff, you can still set your characters apart by giving them different minced oaths to say. One character says ‘fudge’ a lot while the other says ‘Jiminy Christmas’ and still another doesn’t say anything like that at all.

The point is, everybody peppers their language with something, and it’s rare for two people to have the same exact spice level.

The Catchphrase

Please, please, do not give your characters actual catchphrases unless you have a plot-specific reason for it or you’re actually a time traveler writing for a sitcom in the early nineties.

I’m not talking about actual catchphrases. Just a close approximation.

Occasionally in your writing, you may come across a scene where two or a few characters are talking to each other. It’s a fast, snappy dialogue, maybe an argument or witty banter, and upon rereading the scene you’re finding the dialogue tags are slowing everything down. The pace of the conversation is faster than even the tiny pauses from ‘he said’ can handle. You need to cut out the dialogue tags altogether.

Now the problem is your reader can’t follow who is speaking. You have more than two characters, or only the two but the conversation has gone on too long and the reader might forget who is who. Instead of giving in and putting in a dialogue tag, I like to see if I can use the character’s catchphrase.

Again, not an actual catchphrase. What I mean by ‘catchphrase’ is the most unique characteristic to the dialogue I’ve established with this character. If he swears more than the other characters I’m tossing in an epithet. If she uses the biggest words, I’m tossing in something with four or five syllables. If they use the shortest sentences, I’m using a simple word or a grunt.

I’m basically taking all of the effort I’ve put it in to making my characters sounding different and I’m putting it to work.

Is this going to work every time? Probably not. But when it does, you’ve just creatively sorted a dialogue tag-less conversation without having to ruin your flow.

But My Characters Are All The Same!

I get what you’re saying. You’re writing a coming of age story about a bunch of kids in the San Fernando Valley in 1987. They’re all the same age, from the same place and time, with roughly the same upbringing. Basically, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room without it sounding disingenuous.

This is fine! Good, even! For all the reasons you’ve listed, these kids should sound mostly the same.

But only mostly.

The key here, and in any story really, is that you want your characters to sound different from each other. Even if you do have a cast of characters from all over the planet they don’t need to sound like wild stereotypes or a series of tumbling clowns. If they have different backgrounds and voices naturally, great! If they’re all from the same place, there will still be enough personality differences to give them different voices at least to the point your reader can tell them all apart.

If You Phonetically Write Out A Character’s Accent in Their Dialogue I Will Chuck Your Book Into a River

It’s hard to read and it’s tacky as shit. Don’t do it.

Oh, and One More Thing


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