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Monday, October 28

I Hear You: Character Voices in Non-POV Characters

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy
Q: Could you talk about different character voices and how to make them sound different?
I saw a movie (one of my favorite, super-cheesy disaster ones) where five of the female characters were blond. None of these women were main characters, and before long it was impossible to remember who was who and what storyline they belonged to. Nothing they said or did stuck with me after that.

Non-POV characters run this same risk if they don’t have their own distinct voices, but without being inside their heads to help create that voice, it can be tough to make them sound different.

Hey, Look at Me 

Voice is a bit harder for non-POV characters because internalization is a large part of character voice, and without that, you have to rely on the dialogue and how your POV character sees and hears that character. But there are ways to help differentiate your characters and know what dialogue and traits go with what person.

(More on developing different voices for different POVs here)

How They Sound 

If you can change the dialogue tag of a line of dialogue and it doesn’t change the dialogue at all, that’s a red flag that the characters might all sound alike. While some lines might be interchangeable, most shouldn't be. Every character expresses themselves in their own way.

(More on how to write characters who don't sound like you here)

In my fantasy series The Healing Wars, my protagonist and POV character, Nya, has two good friends that help her throughout the trilogy. Aylin and Danello. They’re two very different people and their personalities are reflected in how they speak.

Aylin is more flippant, carefree, yet oddly practical. She comes across as very confident, but she has a lot of insecurities that are evident is how she speaks. She asks lots of questions, phrases things in ways that second-guess herself, even when she’s the one giving advice.

Danello is more cautious, serious, and protective. He states things more than questions them, because he’s already considered options and made a decision. He wants to understand the why, not get the answer on the what. He’s more deliberate overall.

Here’s a snippet from Darkfall:
The ferry dock was empty. Not even the usual beggars crouched by the pilings or resting under the mangrove trees. The ferry itself sat empty at its berth at the far end of the dock.
“Maybe it’s not running?” Aylin shielded her eyes with her hand and gazed over the water. It was flat today, barely any breeze to stir the surface.
“Or they’re not letting it dock at Geveg,” Danello said. “That’s the easiest way to keep people from leaving the city.”
The dialogue here is subtle, but look how Aylin uses a flat out question, and the word "maybe." Her uncertainty is also seen later with her tendency to add “right?” after many of her statements:
“I have no idea, but I figured farmers have horses and horses need shoes, right?”
Even when she’s made a decision, she still questions it.

The Type of Information They Convey 

Each character will be tasked with supplying information at some point of the story. Who they are and what they know determines what they say and how they say it.

Aylin is all about gossip and what she’s seen and heard. She often jumps to conclusions (which can be very effective if you want readers to jump to that same conclusion). She's the one who says what everyone is thinking but doesn’t want to say.

Danello had a much better education and his mother has military knowledge. So naturally, when Nya needs information or ideas about tactics or how the soldiers she’s frequently up against will act, Danello is there with the suggestions. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about because he does. He also tends to keep everyone from reacting without thinking, which is quite a job with Nya around.

From Darkfall:
“She left us,” Aylin said, voice tight. “I knew we couldn’t trust her.”
See how Aylin jumps to conclusions and speaks her mind? There’s even a bit of that self-doubt in here as well, with the “I knew,” like she suspected this earlier but didn’t say anything.Compare that to Danello:
“I don’t think she took it.” Danello picked up the rope and ran a finger along the edge. “Look, the rope is cut. Why cut the anchor instead of just picking it up and putting it back on the skiff?”
Danello sees the bigger picture, takes a step back and looks at what’s really there. He wants to know why this happened and isn’t going to take what he sees at face value. Even if he feels Aylin might be right, he sees clues right away that contradicts that.

Their Role in the Story 

Each non-POV character also plays a role, which affects the types of information they convey and can also help shape their voice.

Aylin is the voice of reason despite her flippant nature, and often says exactly what Nya needs to hear to reel her in some. Or say what needs to be said no matter how unpleasant it might be.

Danello is the protector, the voice of caution. He sees what might go wrong and takes steps to prevent that from happening.

From Blue Fire:
Aylin grabbed my hands. “Nya, stop. There’s ugly and then there’s just plain wrong.” She locked her gaze on mine. “I can live with ugly if we get our people back, but I’m not letting you do wrong. Might as well turn yourself in to the Duke if you start that.”
This is typical Aylin, saying what she thinks, being practical, accepting what she has to do, but stopping Nya from going over a line she knows can’t be crossed.

From Darkfall:
“Eyes down,” Danello whispered into my ear. “You’re glaring at him.”
This is very Danello. He notices danger, especially if it’s Nya putting herself in danger, and he acts on it. He’s not one for long speeches, and he doesn’t waste words.

Their Relationship to the POV Character 

Who that character is to the POV also influences what they say and how they say it.

Aylin has been a good friend to Nya from the start, so she has the freedom to say things others can’t. She’s not awed or scared of Nya's powers in any way, and takes what her best friend can do a face value. She’s also one of the first to suggest that Nya uses her abilities, because that’s just part of who Nya is.

Danello starts out as a stranger, turns into a friend, then eventually a love interest. His personal stake in Nya increases over the course of the series, so naturally his need to protect her does as well (which fits his book role as protector). But he’s also a boy who likes a girl, so there will be hesitant and tender moments. He’ll phrase things a little differently for Nya than he might for Aylin.

From Darkfall:
Aylin huffed. “We have Healers and soldiers and knives. We can make pain.”
Aylin’s flippant tone says what has to be done like it’s obvious. It says what no one else wanted to say, but still maintains her often-humorous style.
“I know, but it made you smile.” He set the pepper on a plate and grabbed a knife from the basket. “We’ll split both. That way you won’t have to choose.”
Danello is sweet, but still takes charge. He sees Nya is having trouble (even if it’s just choosing what type of food to eat) and does what he can to make it easier on her, protecting her as always.

Non-POV character voices can be challenging sometimes, and there will be times when a line really can go to any character. But think about who that character is, what role they play, and how they typically get information to the POV and you’ll start seeing subtle ways you can change a line to better suit who that character is.

And then they’ll start sounding like them and no one else.

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Great article, but it's such a TEASE for Darkfall! :)

  2. Lydia: Bwahhahaha. I'll have a bigger tease on Thursday. :)

  3. Really fantastic article, Janice. You seem to know the exact problem I'm examining in my MS and make a post about it. Me thinks you have spies on my computer!

    I am also looking forward to Darkfall. :)

  4. Janice this was a great post full of wonderful examples. First of all, I thought you should know that while I adore your blog, I've yet to read your writing. For some reason this post pushed me over the edge and I am hopping on the library site to request some of your books now :-)

    And I love the specific examples you used. In particular how you showed the character's uncertainty with using the word "right?" at the end of her sentences. I find myself doing things like this sometimes, or using certain words like "oh" or something, but then I worry that an agent will think it is a writing tic and not a character choice. Should this ever be a concern, or if it is only used with one character will it be obvious?

  5. Great article, Janice. I enjoy your characters very much.

  6. Thank you so much for this. I'm about ready to dive in and try to correct these problems in my manuscript. The exampes are super helpful. And I can't wait to read the book.

  7. I love the examples you've used to demonstrate here, Janice. It's so much easier to 'get' these things when you can see ways they've been done right.
    - Sophia.

  8. Great article- and really timely for me. I'm looking forward to Darkfell.

  9. Stephanie: Gnome spies. With thick X-Ray vision specs. :)

    Rachel: Oh cool, thanks! I hope you enjoy them. I'd only worry about it if it starts to become distracting. If it's clearly something the character does and that implies something about that character, you're probably fine. But if you use it every time they speak like a way to differentiate then, then you might think about tweaking.

    Juliette: Thanks! They're your godchildren so you'd better, LOL.

    Natalie: Most welcome. I had fun combing through the books to finds examples. Been a while since I've read them so I kept reading instead of looking, hehe.

    Sophia: My thoughts exactly, which is why I try to offer examples when I can.

  10. Good post, very helpful with showing us examples of how to assemble character dialogue. Thanks so much!

  11. Michelle: Most welcome! I just realized this week is a bit of a dialog week, though not all specifically about dialog. RWW is dialogy as well.

  12. Thank you for this. Most of my sidekicks are distinct enough that I don't worry about them, but minor characters...minor characters probably shouldn't all use words like "erstwhile." :P

    1. Nope, probably not *all* (grin). One is fine if you give him a reason for it, though.

  13. I always suggest that newer writers cast their secondary characters with actors that fit the role. That way, they can "hear" the right voice, and it's much easier to get the dialogue right for characters who aren't always on the page or even every chapter.

    I really like your examples.

    1. Great idea. As long as they're not trying to copy a character that would really help get a sense of voice solid in their head.