I saw a movie the other day (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. Your non-POV characters run this same risk if they don’t have their own distinct voices.
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 their dialog and how your POV character sees and hears that character. But there are ways to help differentiate your characters and know what dialog and traits go with what person.
How They Sound
This is where the voice comes in. If you can change the dialog tag of a line of dialog and it doesn’t change the dialog at all, that’s a red flag that your characters might all sound alike. While some lines might be interchangeable, most aren’t. Every character expresses themselves in their own way.
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 they don’t sound the same. 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 dialog 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 will determine 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). Aylin is 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, quite a job with Nya around.
“She left us,” Aylin said, voice tight. “I knew we couldn’t trust her.”Aylin jumping to conclusions and speaking 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.
“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 seeing the bigger picture, taking a step back and looking 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 knows 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. Aylin is the voice of reason despite her flippant nature, and often says exactly what Nya needs 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.”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.
“Eyes down,” Danello whispered into my ear. “You’re glaring at him.”Very Danello. He notices danger, even 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. 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. 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 in any way, and takes what her best friend can do a face value. She’s also one of the first to suggest Nya uses her abilities, because that’s just part of who Nya is.
Aylin huffed. “We have Healers and soldiers and knives. We can make pain.”Aylin’s flippant tone, saying what has to be done like it’s obvious. Saying what no one else wanted to say, but still maintaining 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 being sweet, but still taking 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.