Writing Unique Voices for Your Characters
Hi, my love.
It doesn't surprise us when different people say hello differently. In a single day, you could be greeted in each of these ways and dozens more by different friends, acquaintances, family members, and strangers. All those real life people say hi in ways that are uniquely their own, and those differences go way beyond their salutations. It leaks into the way they tell a story, or show their love, or how they react when they're excited or angry or full of joy.
Have you ever read a book where all the characters sounded exactly the same? It's disorienting, confusing, and frustrating as the reader, and to be honest, its doing each of those characters a disservice. So, before you sit down to write a novel, you should explore who your characters are and how they speak for their sake and for the sake of your readers. The voices of your characters should be just as unique and different as the voices you encounter daily in your every day life, so here are 5 tips and tricks to help you write unique character voices.
The easiest and quickest way to write an authentic and unique voice for a character is to listen to the way people around you actually talk. Call a series of friends and ask them the same question. Write down the things they say exactly how the say them. For instance, you might call one friend and ask how their day was, and they just answer with "Fine." The next friend might hone in on one big event or what they had for lunch, and the friend after that might tell you about their day from start to finish. Listen to snippets of conversation when you're out in the world, on a bus, grocery shopping, or eating in a restaurant. Listen to interviews with celebrities or stories told by different people on podcasts. Listen to the quality of the voices, too: vocal fry, speed, tone, cadence, and pitch. You'd be surprised how varied language is when you're really paying attention.
Once you've listened (really listened) and taken notes on a bunch of different voices, take a look at what you have and start asking yourself lots of questions. How long or short are the sentences? Do you notice any patterns? How does age or location or level of stress affect the way people talk? What do you know about your friends that might explain their different answers to the "How was your day?" question? Study your answers to these questions. Then ask yourself more.
Figure out who your characters are as people. If they're insecure, they might be more likely to have a halting voice, lots of pauses, nervous gestures, ums and ahs. If they're more confident, they might speak very succinctly. Males sometimes have shorter sentences than females. Artists might use more flowery language, while a scientist or someone with a more analytical mind might speak in more concrete terms. Below are a few other questions you can ask yourself about your characters to explore who they are and how those characteristics affects their voice:
How old are they?
How rich or poor?
What part of the world are they from?
Is English their second language?
Are they the oldest, youngest, middle, or only child?
Are they spoiled, used to getting what they want? Or have they been deprived?
Do they like to read?
Are they confident? Shy?
These are all questions that can inform your characters voice and make it their own.
Reading helps everything. Creating and developing unique character voices is no different. So, once you know who your characters are, read tons of books. Read books with characters that are extremely different from your characters, and books that feature characters that are similar to yours in age or temperament. You should especially read lots of books with more than one narrator. Of course, you can also read articles online (like this one!) about making sure each of your characters has a unique voice. A quick google search will reveal that there are lots of great resources out there.
And lastly, write. Sometimes, when you start to write a character, their voice will reveal itself. But even if it doesn't, once you have something written you'll be able to see if your characters sound as different as they should. You'll be able to adjust and pivot and edit as much as you need to. And practice is always what makes a difference in the end.
Here's an exercise that I've found helpful in my own writing:
Pick a dramatic event for a scene: a funeral, an explosion, a first kiss. And write about the exact same event from three different characters perspectives. Make a concerted effort to make each voice unique. Then, even if that scene is not a scene you need for your novel, take note of how you write each character.
Is one cursing during the explosion, while another cried? Did one character completely over think the kiss, with rich internal conflict, while the other didn't think at all and just focused on the moment? What do they say? How do they react? This one scene can help you figure out who your characters are and what their voice is like. Once you know that, you're ready to write a book with strong, unique, three-dimensional characters, with one-of-a-kind voices to match.