Divas on Writing: Character Voice
Do all your characters sound the same, use the same catch phrases, the same endearments? Is everyone snarky, timid or formal?
Developing a distinctive voice for each character takes work. But if it’s done right, it can add depth to your characters and layers to your story. There are many things that can influence the way people sound, and as an author, it is your job to give your characters a “voice” in your reader’s minds that differentiates them from each other.
What influences character voice? I’m glad you asked.
Most people grow up in a family, whether it’s biological, loyalty, network of friends, military, the streets, etc. And this family influences the way we speak and express ourselves. I’m reminded of a woman who moved into our neighborhood a few years ago. She had a way of speaking that was all her own. The fact that she used certain facial expressions, words, cadence of speech, and hand gestures set her apart from other speakers. When I met this woman’s adult daughter a few months later, the similarities in their speech patterns and expressions were uncanny—like mother like daughter, right? Interestingly their audible voices didn’t sound anything alike, but there was no mistaking who belonged to which family because of the unique voice.
I grew up mispronouncing antibiotics. It wasn’t until a coworker called me out on it that I realized the word I thought I was saying (correctly in my head) was coming out incorrectly. Imagine my embarrassment. 😉 It wasn’t until I paid my mother visit and she mispronounced antibiotics that I found the culprit.
Authors can use these elements of speech to create a family voice for their characters if family is part of the story. Brothers and sisters tend to have their own language in some ways. With one word or the inflection of voice you can bring back memories, feelings, experiences, etc. that are unique to that family. Use this to create character voice.
Most countries have a variety of dialects based on geography. The same is true of the US. Sometimes those differences can make our common language sound like a foreign tongue. Dialects, similes, idioms, catch phrases, slang, religious lingo, regional sayings, etc. all play a part in how we pronounce words, construct sentences, add inflection, drop letters or sounds, and communicate with each other.
These elements are useful when you have groups of like-minded characters or a close-knit community featuring several characters that can offer different voices to your manuscript. To differentiate within a group with the same regional dialect, pay close attention to how your characters put their sentences together, their choice of words, emphasis, family voice, and tics.
Have you ever read a bit of dialogue where one person sets the tone for the conversation, whether it be the eighty-year-old grandmother, the middle-aged dad, the teenager, or the little child? This is when one character’s tone and voice is adopted by everyone in the room, and not giving each character a voice that fits their age and value systems. How many times have you read dialogue from a little child that’s too articulate at the age of four? Or the teenager who thinks everything is delightful? Or the grandmother who thinks a bloody slasher was wicked? Keep your characters real with a voice that fits who they are and the generation they grew up in. By ignoring this, your characters will no longer feel authentic.
I live in the Western US, while Diva Jen lives in the Northeast. I remember the first time I used the phrase what’s her bucket, a variation of what’s her name. My sister started using this when we were kids and it caught on. Diva Jen laughed and told me she loved it. And every time I used it, she’d laugh. Well, I finally caught her using what’s her bucket this past week. One of my speech patterns had rubbed off on someone I’m close too and doesn’t live anywhere near me. This is true of most friends, roommates, coworkers, etc. They might have a favorite phrase, greeting, or something they say when something good or bad happens. This is part of what makes up voice.
We use different voices depending on what we’re doing. When I answer the phone for a business call, I use my telephone voice. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the tone you use on the phone when you want to sound professional and be taken seriously. And when you friends call, they compliment or harass you about your “phone voice.” But is it simply because I changed the modulation of my voice to sound smoother? No, there’s more to it. My phone voice involves a different vocabulary and inflection. I’m not talking to my girlfriends about going out for the weekend, my kids about picking them up from school, or my five-year-old niece who wants to play princess. I’m talking to the VP of Acquisitions and want to make a good impression. Voice can change according to the situation, so pay attention to how your character’s voice will change.
I’m going to repeat some advice Write Divas has given in past articles.
Release your inner voyeur and eavesdrop on conversations around you.
Study how people phrase their conversations, how they put their words together, what words they say, what they don’t say… and take notes. Do they mispronounce words, add extra prepositions, or use the wrong one? Is anyone not a native speaker? How can you tell? What is it about their speech, not just the crispness of their pronunciation, but the words they use or drop, that alerts your ear of the difference? Use those observations to enhance character voice.
We humans are two-faced. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the way it is. We have a face for our family, for our coworkers, for our friends, for our church, and any other social groups we spend time with. Pay attention to the different aspects of your characters’ lives presented in your story and find ways to give them their own individual voices.
Remember, a dock worker isn’t going to sound like a ballet dancer, a New Yorker isn’t going to sound like an a Southerner, and an alpha male isn’t going to sound like a poet laureate. Just be careful you don’t overdo it. Character voice should subtly set your characters apart without beating your readers over the head with a club to do it. The last thing you want is for your character’s voice to eclipse the character. Use voice to enhance, not overpower.
Now it’s your turn.What have you done to develop character voice in your writing? Please let us know in the comments below!
Now… go write something!