You know when you’re around that one friend who speaks in an accent (Southern, British, Spanish, etc.) and after a while you find yourself using the same words and phrases or speaking with a similar accent as that friend? This is called voice drift.
It happens in writing too. Have you ever read a book where the characters all sounded the same, the narrative (especially third person) sounded like all the other characters, or all the characters had a white bread feel to them? This too could very well be due to voice drift.
Voice drift is when the voices of the characters start to sound like other characters, destroying any efforts you may have made to give each character a unique voice. When voice drift happens, it is often the default voice that has taken over. What is the default voice? Well, it’s quite simply the voice of the author. It’s a shift from the voice of the story. It’s no longer the voice of point of view character telling the story. It is the voice of the author. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is now the POV character, but rather the POV character now sounds like the author.
Many times it’s not clear at first because you, the author, have created unique voices for each of your characters. However, as the story progresses, the characters’ voices might gradually start to sound alike. Books in a series are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. In fact, it is an aspect of writing that even experienced writers must watch for.
But is voice drift something authors should be concerned about? If you want unique memorable characters that will stick with your readers, then yes. There are a some ways to determine if your book suffers from voice drift.
He Said / She Said
Have you had any of your readers or anyone in your support network have a hard time keeping track of who said what in conversations, whether it’s a two-person conversation or a room full of people?
Unique Word Combinations
Make a list of any unique phrases, sayings, idioms, etc. your characters use verbally and/or internally and who said them. Do more than one character unintentionally (as in you, the author, didn’t mean to do that) use the same phrase or saying? Unless there is a compelling reason for them to use these same elements such as siblings who pronounce “especially” as “exspecially” because that’s how their mother pronounced it, your characters’ voices shouldn’t be that similar.
Sense of Humor
Another red flag is if your characters share the same sense of humor. While we might have two characters who will generally laugh at humor, rarely do you find that all friends, family member, coworkers, etc. find the same things funny. Humor is tricky. One person might find something hilarious, another might find the same thing cruel.
Part of the Crowd
If your core group of characters—or if all the periphery characters—agree on everything and have the same opinion, take a closer look to make sure the characters aren’t too alike. Now I’m not talking about things that most people will universally agree upon, for example, most people will agree that world hunger is an awful thing. But what people don’t agree on how to rid the world of hunger and make sure everyone has food for the forseeable future.
Cardboard is Boring
If you’ve had complaints about boring dialogue or characters that are cutouts or cardboard, it could mean that your characters are too similar.
Take a conversation from your manuscript and remove all dialogue tags and narrative that shows who is speaking. Read it aloud to someone else without changing the tone of your voice or giving verbal cues. If the listener has a hard time following who says what in the conversation, take a look a closer look at your characters’ voices and the possibility of voice drift.
One way to keep voice drift out of your stories is to constantly be on the look out for the offenders listed above. Another is to compare conversations from the beginning of your story to later ones to make sure character voice hasn’t drifted. Ask someone to read your book, paying close attention to character voice, especially if you have a book series. Reading your book aloud helps because your ear will pick up similarities silent reading won’t. Another is to decide what your characters sound like. Use different tones, inflection, dialect, idioms, etc.
A word of caution: Don’t get so caught up on making your characters sound unique that they no longer sound or act like people who are friends, family members, coworkers, etc. Voice still needs to fit the character and you never want to create character voice that is so unique that it becomes a hurdle your readers have to jump to enjoy your book.
Remember, the world is filled with billions of people wherein no two are alike. Everyone is unique and special in some way. Your job as an author is to create memorable characters that are as varied as the people on this planet.
Please don’t scrap all the characters in your book! Look at each character and decide what drives them and what their biggest fear is. These types of core elements shape personality and should be present during key interactions. Decide what makes them different from the other characters. Then decide how to portray that in your book.
Now… go write something!