“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 individuals. It’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!”