Nailing Character Voice

vintage_mic“All your characters talk the same,” said my critique partner. “If I plucked a quotation randomly from within the pages, I wouldn’t be able to tell who was speaking without looking at the dialogue cues.”

My jaw dropped. All my characters talk the same? I thought to myself. Impossible! They were well-rounded characters with developed backgrounds and unique personalities. I could practically hear their voices in my head as I wrote! So why did they sound the same to another reader? And more importantly, how on earth was I going to fix it?

When I’m pounding away on the keyboard trying to up the word-count on whatever project I’m currently working on, the last thing on my mind is how my characters talk. Heck, I’m usually happy if I can remember where the quotation marks go! But imbuing characters with unique voices is in fact crucial to making them jump off the pages as memorable individualsIt’s a messy, tricky art. And if, like me, you’re having trouble mastering that art, here are a few suggestions to speed you on your way.

1) Listen to the way real people talk…

not how people in movies or on TV or in the pages of a book talk. Go to a cafe. Ride the subway. Sit alone at a bar. And then listen. It’s okay–I’m giving you permission to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations, just this once. Really listen to the rhythms of sentences, and how different people string words together. Does the severe-looking woman in the business suit use the same language as the hip young dad with junior in tow? I doubt it. The same goes for characters.

2) Remember that character and voice are a feedback loop…

…continuously amplifying one another. Characters’ backgrounds and personalities give cues about how they should and would talk as real people, and the resulting “voice” in turn strengthens the character by reflecting those qualities. Let’s say a rags-to-riches prodigy constantly uses big technical words to explain simple concepts. That tells the reader Doogie Howser still feels like he has something to prove. Maybe an ex-military bodyguard speaks in short words and choppy sentences because she believes actions are more important than words. Voice may be informed by background and personality, but it is also a window back into the character.

3) Add in verbal tics and habitual phrases…

…without resorting to cliché. We humans are creatures of habit, and the way we speak often falls into familiar repetitive patterns. While I’m not suggesting you have your character say “like” every two seconds, sometimes one character’s verbal tics can set them apart from the others. Think of Breaking Bad: Jesse Pinkman’s indiscriminate usage of “yo” and “b***h” throughout the show served to make his voice distinctive from Walter’s or Skylar’s while also giving cues about his personality and background. Just be careful not to repeat it to the point where it becomes a catchphrase, like George R. R. Martin’s character Ygritte’s now-famous line “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

That is, unless you’re trying to start a meme.

Well, that’s it! Follow these steps and you should be well on your way to mastering the tricky art of character voice. And don’t feel bad if you can’t get the hang of it at first: I’ll still be over here wondering why my uneducated, sullen love interest shouldn’t talk like a poet! “You know nothing, yo!”

8 thoughts on “Nailing Character Voice

  1. Great advice, thanks for sharing! 🙂 I have the same problem. I generally have a couple of characters who really are individual, and then the rest kinda just sound the same 😀 Definitely something I need to work on.

    1. Haha, at least that’s a start! I think character voice gets even more challenging for minor characters who don’t have a fully fleshed-out backstory.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Yes, yes, you might have to do this in your first edit. I say listen to your kids. My son who is 46 says, “right on.” His brother calls other men “bro”, But my grandchildren speak a different language altogether. “Go figure”. Don’t forget to use expressions from the time period of your book.

    1. True! I don’t have any children of my own, but I do notice the younger generation uses much different slang than I do! My most recent work is Prohibition-era inspired, so I’ve been having a blast looking up old phrases from the ’20s to add authenticity to my characters’ speech!

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. livrancourt says:

    I recently read a book where the story was told in alternating first-person POV sections. Each break was marked with the POV character’s name, but I found after a while I could identify which character had the lead before the first paragraph was over. The characters’ dialogue was consistent with the distinctive voice of their POV, and I walked away thinking, “That’s how it’s supposed to be done.” Of course, it’s easy to identify when someone does it well, and MUCH harder to accomplish in my own work.

    (Oh, and in case you’re curious, the book was Melusine by Sarah Monette. VERY good read!)

    1. Ooh, I’ll have to check that out! Yes, I’m always very impressed when someone knocks character voice out of the park. Although singular POV, I Capture the Castle is probably one of my top examples of character voice done well–every sentence is imbued with who Cassandra is as a person.

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