Monday, June 17, 2013

How to Write Characters Who Don't Sound Like You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Good characters step off the page and into readers' hearts, but that doesn't happen if all the characters sound the same. Too-similar voices can make it hard to tell characters apart and they wind up blending together into one big character mush. (And really, who likes mush?)

It can be even more challenging when all the characters sound like you. You've worked hard to develop your author's voice, but now it's getting in the way and keeping those characters from finding their voices.

Let's look at some ways to develop a unique voice for every character.

5 Ways to Develop Character Voices


1. How do they greet people?

People say hello differently. Sometimes it's a regional or cultural tradition, or even a personal style. Is your character a "Yo what's up?" kind of gal, or a "So good to see you" type? How she greets someone says a lot about where she grew up, where she lives now, and how open she is toward others. Understanding her personality can help determine what her voice sounds like.

If she's a boisterous greeter, odds are she's boisterous in other ways as well. Or maybe she likes to draw attention to herself, so she's the one who frequently interrupts or always has something to add to a conversation. If she gives a weak "hi" then she might be the quiet one who rarely gives more than a one- or two-word answer.

(More on developing non-POV character voices here)

2. How do they answer questions?

Does he give one-word answers or way-too-much information? Does he get right to the point or is there a story attached to it? Someone who's reluctant to answer might also be a guy who doesn't like to talk a lot or reveal too much about himself. A gal who says too much might be a talker in all aspects of her life and have a hard time getting to a point. The reluctant guy might be a "Hey" kind of greeter, while the Chatty Cathy probably never just says hello.

3. Do they make questions or statements?

How does your character respond when presented with someone else's problem? Does he ask questions or make statements about what to do? Someone who judges a situation and immediately decides what has to be done is a different personality type from someone who questions it before making a decision. The jump-to-it guy always knows what to do (even when he's wrong) and might sound bossy or confident. The thoughtful guy might appear hesitant or meek (even when he's not) or might seem wise because he always asks the right questions.

The meek "hi" greeter isn't the one who's likely to make statements about what has to be done in a problem, even if she happens to know exactly what to do. The attention hog who greets everyone by name and makes sure they all know he's there will jump right in and share what he thinks.

(More on developing character voices here)

4. What's their education?

Education plays a role in how we communicate. Is this a gal with a large vocabulary who likes to use it, or someone with a limited vocabulary who uses a lot of slang or clich├ęs? Take it a step further and think about why she speaks as she does. Is she self conscious about her Ph.D and purposefully tries to sound dumber to fit in (or hide something) or a smart gal who never got past high school who tries hard to sound more educated?

Maybe that boisterous greeter who makes statements instead of asking questions is really insecure about his lack of education, and overcompensates by always acting like he knows what to do or what's going on. Or the meek greeter asks questions because she's not sure she really understands what's happening and doesn't want to appear dumb. Or the friendly greeter asks a lot of questions to determine the best course of action because she truly wants to help and has the smarts to actually offer good advice. (See how these all build upon each other)

5. Where's their hometown?

Regions have different dialects, slang, and terms for things. Saying pop versus soda, crayfish versus crawdad, everyone versus y'all. Where a character grew up will leave traces on his speech, and you can use those traces to give that character a different voice from the others. If his hometown has a distinct accent or speaking pattern, it makes it even easier to figure out how someone from there would speak.

Where someone grew up also affects how they might interact with others. A Southern genteel upbringing could mean your gal might be polite and sweet, yet aloof (cause good folks don't pry) or a terrible gossip (cause prying means caring, don't ya know), an inner-city guy might take control of every room he walks into, because that's what it took to survive. The suburban boy might do the opposite of what everyone expects because he's tired of conforming.

(More on developing your author's voice here)

Personality plays a large role in how a characters sounds. Their voice will reflect that personality and color every line of dialog and internal thought. Even better, it'll help you develop richer characters because they won't just be two-dimensional people spouting lines on a page. Those lines will come from someplace real, because you'll know why those characters speak like they do.

Writing exercise time!

In 250 words or less, show a conversation with different character voices.

Here's the catch
--You can't use greetings, because that's too easy.

And the extra challenge: Make it a conversation where one person is trying to persuade the other in some way.

Post your entry in the comments section. Deadline for entries is next Monday, June 24, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, June 25th.

Winner gets a 1000-word critique.
Contest is open to everyone.

21 comments:

  1. The socially acceptable form of eavesdropping is to hang out in places like coffeeshops. You can hear all sorts of people of different demographics than yours, that way.

    Malls can also work, but it's harder to pull off without people trying to get away from you. ^_^

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  2. Once more you read my journal and knew just what I needed to hear. I'm writing a book from a male perspective. Having never been a 16-year-old male, well the task is daunting. So, thank you for your advice!

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  3. I tell my writing students who are just starting that casting an actor they are very familiar with will help them hear the right voice.

    It's also a good trick for minor characters who come and go through the book because it's easy to keep the voice consistent.

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  4. I've actually worried about this with my own writing.

    I recently read a book with two points of view, but both characters sounded the same. I sometimes had to check the beginning of the chapter to see who was speaking. Good book, but this was a definite issue.

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  5. This was very helpful. I love playing with dialogue, maybe I use way too much, but it is a good way to tell the story from different povs.

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  6. Writing Exercise

    “Of course clime change is anthropogenic! 94% of the Australian people agree that clime change is caused by our impact on the planet,” Sharon cried out, looking at me as if I had fallen from another planet.
    “But what about those scientist that have voiced a different opinion, like Ian Plimer, for example? I replied, trying to be the devil’s advocate.
    “Ian Plimer? He’s a liar, a cheat, a discredited scientist!”
    “Really? And what about Lord Monckton then? He travels the world giving talks that contradict the anthropogenic model,” I retorted.
    “That man is crazy, have you seen his eyes?” Sharon said, glaring at me.
    “Yes, they bulge,” I said. “Does that mean he is unstable?”
    “No, thyroid problems! Besides, he is not a Lord anyway. The House of Lords has released a statement distancing itself from him,” she said, matter-of-fact.
    “No real climate scientists dispute the anthropogenic model!” she added, looking at me in way that wasn’t exactly threatening, but still made me uncomfortable.
    “But what about geoscientists? Most don’t seem to buy the anthropogenic model either,” I argued, adding fuel to the fire.
    “Geologists know nothing about climate change, they are just geologist for pits sake! They’re jealous of the climate scientists because they receive all the funding!” said Sharon, fuming, and walked way.
    Thus robbing me of the opportunity to say – “that is exactly the problem, can’t you see? Those who hold a different view are being gagged by the government and funding agencies.”

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  7. Carradee, hehe true! I know a lot of writers who do that.

    LinWash, my gremlins strike again! Holly Black's Curseworker series has a great teen guy narrator if you're looking for some examples. Chris Cutcher also writes great guys.

    Marilynn, great tip.

    Julie, I've run into that as well. And I also worry about that, especially since my WIP is two POVs in first person (eek!). Getting those voices different has taken a lot of work.

    Denise, nah, lots of dialog is good! My first drafts are mostly dialog, actually.

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  8. Love your column, Janice. I decided to take the plunge.

    Writing exercise.

    “I’ll talk to the CO,” I said.
    “No need,” Rick replied. “Already had a rousing tete-a-tete with Senior Officer Doorbuster an hour ago.”
    No doubt about it, Rick was pissed. I decided against correcting him with Officer Dorchester’s proper name.
    “I meant to tell you earlier.”
    “Were you going include my pending appointment with Nurse Ratched and her merry band of needle-stickers and butt-pokers?
    "The one you call Nurse Ratched, is actually Doctor Jean Withers.”
    “Well then, since it’s a doctor rummaging around my innards, I should be honored.”
    “She’s just going to give you a health exam, not propose marriage?”
    “What do you know about it?” he groused. “Gal starts philandering around Buster and the sidekicks, next you know, she’s reeking of jasmine perfume, opening a bottle of hooch, and suggesting dates.”
    I don’t know what happened in the past to warrant his cast-iron bachelorhood, but he had me huffing with the chuckles.
    Rick grabbed his hat and slapped it on his head. “If it’s all the same to you, Warden, I think I’ll mosey on back to the old place.”

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  9. Excellent stuff to ponder! especially since my CP commented that some of my characters were sounding alike. Oops. Different people DO label things differently, and you make a great point that they even say hello in different ways! (depending on if they are shy, chatty, etc.)

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  10. This was fun! My writing exercise, at 192 words:

    Granna kicked the end of my bed, making it shudder. "Get your lazy carcass up and moving. I'm not playing ladies' maid to you all summer, no matter what your mother thinks."
    "Whaaat?" I squinted at the pale-lit window behind her and groaned. "The freaking sun's barely up. This is my first day of vacation, Granna."
    "As if that makes a speck of difference. There's still chores to be done. I need that garden weeded, and I don't mean tomorrow. If you're going to be eating my vegetables, you're sure as shootin' going to do some of the work."
    I squeezed my eyes closed. Nope, she hadn't changed in the last three years. "The garden will still be there in a couple of hours," I said, and wrapped the pillow around my head.
    She yanked the pillow from my head so fast I swear I got whiplash. "Darcy Renee Tate, I said for you to get up. And that means now. Don't make me fetch a bucket of water to splash you out of that bed."
    Tyrant. The word was so close to the tip of my tongue, it nearly fell out.

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  11. Mine, at 250:


    Leo stared at the wall for a long moment before he became aware that Zara darted glances at him. He returned the look quizzically.
    “Don’t their faces haunt you?” she asked. He raised an eyebrow. “The faeries you hunt. My people. The families you tear apart to satisfy your paymasters!”
    He dropped his eyes to the ledger under his hands, considering. “No.”
    Zara huffed and stabbed her needle into the sock. Leo picked up his pen. At fifty terons for two faeries, factor in cost of supplies, take ten for general purposes, that left twenty-eight to go to savings. He marked the ledger.
    “I’ve heard them weep. Don’t you ever think of their tears? Or is money your only concern?”
    “They are lawbreakers. They rob their masters of—”
    “They’re people! They have feelings, they have thoughts, they are not animals to be trampled under your insensitive feet!”
    Leo sighed and turned to a fresh page. Runaways were business. But saying so would only earn another tongue-lashing.
    Apparently, silence would too, for Zara started again. “Have you ever thought about them?”
    “Yes.” How did she imagine he tracked them? Guesswork?
    He waited for more, but her passion seemed to have exhausted itself.
    For a time, they worked in silence. He finished the credit entries and moved to the debits, which loomed in ever larger numbers. Another month like this, and the farm would be Eogan’s for sure.
    Then Zara spoke, her voice subdued. “They get beaten when you return them.”

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  12. New to your blog...great info...I'm a fan. Writing Exercise at 248 words:

    “Janey…Janey….here, girl…where are you, Janey?”

    “Whatza matter,Mister? Did you lose your little girl?”

    “No, sweetie, not my girl – my dog. Her name is Janey and she’s lost. Have you seen her on the playground?”

    “Nope. I can ask Mommy if she’s seen Janey. She’s sitting on the bench over there.”

    “No, let’s not bother Mommy now. Can you help me look for Janey?

    “Mommy said I’m not supposed to talk to people I don’t know too good, so I shouldn’t help you look.”

    “Well, you know Janey’s name and my name’s Dave…guess I’m not a stranger now, right? What’s your name?”

    “I’m Suzie.”

    “You know, Suzie, I’ll feel really bad if I can’t find my dog. She just had puppies and they’re in my car. I opened the door for a second and she jumped out.”

    “Puppies! I love puppies. I asked Santa for a puppy and Mommy said maybe he’ll bring me one next Christmas.”

    “How would you like a puppy right now? If you help me find Janey, I’ll give you one as a reward. Do you know what a reward is, Suzie?”

    “Yes, it’s a present you get for doing something nice.”

    “That’s right. A smart girl like you can help me find Janey quickly - so she can be with her puppies again. And I’ll give you a big reward for being nice to me.”

    “I guess it’ll be okay…can I pick any puppy I want?”

    “Any puppy at all….my car’s just over there.”

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  13. Appreciated these tips. Sounds like lots of us needed this post!

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  14. “C’mon, man. You gotta sign this quick. I gotta get back to The Street pronto.”

    “Unhaund me, you ruffian. A filthy urchin such as you shall not accost me. Do you know who I am?”

    “I knows who you is, but you is gonna be was if you don’t sign this. Mr. Armand sent me.”

    “Jeffery Ormond?’

    “Yeah, man, Jeffy. Your guy in da pit. He sez you tied him up and blew it big time ‘cause you so pig-slop arrogant, man.

    “Mr. Ormond said I was pig-slop arrogant?”

    “Ain’t cha?”

    “How dare you? And how do you know Jeffery Ormond?”

    “I works for ‘em.”

    “You? That hardy seems likely. What could you possibly offer a professional gentleman like Jeffery Ormond?’

    “I runs fast.”

    “Why would Jeffery Ormond care about your fleet feet?”

    “Well, I got to you before you knew you needed gettin’ to. – C’mon. I gotta get goin’. Sign this.”

    “Calm down. What is ‘this’?”

    “It’s a stop-buy order.”

    “Now, why would I want to sign a stop-buy order? I have previously given Mr. Ormond precise, written instructions for all my transactions.”

    “Dats da problem. You is buyin’ every bit of Acme Arts dat comes on the market. It’s all comin’ on. Everybody but you is sellin’. Don’t you care ‘bout the memorial?”

    “What memorial?”

    “The one Acme Arts is buildin’ for Osama bin Laden on the moon. Theys usin’ suiciders and Korean rockets to make the man in the moon Osama in the moon. Yous in trouble, man.”

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  15. Seemed like a fun challenge, so here's an edited scene snippet from what I'm working on... I think I got out all the swearing? Sorry, 3 characters instead of 2.

    ***

    There’s a double-fisted bang on my door. “Jay, X-Box.”

    “I’m working.”

    “Take off your lipstick and panties for an hour!” Donny wedges his head through the crack and sees Kell. “Why do you have a Mexican in your room? Are you paying her in food stamps to take her clothes off?”

    Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s not thicker than bigotry. I know you can’t choose your family members, but I sure as hell believe you can walk the other way when you see one coming.

    I put down my paintbrush. “She’s not Mexican, you half-wit, or naked.”

    “But she’s brown. That wasn’t racist, y’know, ‘cause she is brown, and anyways, I have the right to free speech.” He winks. “First amendment, all the way.”
    Before I can yell, Kell breaks in.

    “Double-digit-IQ here knows which country he lives in. Gold stars all around.” She doesn’t sound angry, or even sarcastic.

    I manage a tight laugh. “Donny’s a sophomore at St. Anthony’s.”

    “I didn’t realize private schools consider geography an elective, along with diplomacy and etiquette.”

    Donny snorts. “I’m taking automotive shop, not French.”

    “Changing oil is one step up from making fries.”

    “Hey, Taco Bell, get out so Jay and me can shoot stuff.”

    “Donovan!” I’m about to get seriously pissed.

    But Kell leans forward, out of the good light. “Call of Duty?”

    “Oh, yeah!”

    “Then I’m going to kick your butt.”

    He grins. “Well, I don’t mind if you’re wearing lipstick.”

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  16. My entry, 250 words. :)

    “I’ll explain everything when we get back to your house,” Jack said. “For now, we need to leave. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep the authorities out of this.”

    More water splashed to the floor as I ran my hand over my hair. “None of this makes any sense.”

    “It’ll all be clear soon.” He rubbed my shoulder. “It’s too cold for you to go outside wet, so I’m going to dry you. Don’t freak out.”

    “What--”

    All the water pulled from our clothes and hair. The tiny droplets shimmered, hanging in the air around Trevor, Camryn, and me before they splattered to the ground.

    If not for the frizzy mound of ringlets sticking up everywhere on Camryn’s head--and everything I’d just witnessed--I never would’ve guessed she or Trevor had ever been wet.

    “So. Freaking. Awesome!” Trevor said, apparently forgetting he hated Jack.

    “No.” I shoved Jack. “Not awesome. None of this is awesome. Tell me how any of this is possible. Now. No more of this I’ll tell you later crap.”

    Jack lowered his lips to my ear, and whispered, “You belong to the most powerful race of beings in the universe.” He nodded toward my friends. “They do not. Therefore, I prefer not to discuss any of this in front of them. Too many of their memories will have to be erased as it is.”

    “Erased?” I choked out the word.

    Jack prodded me toward the exit. “I’ll make sure it’s as pain-free as possible.”

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  17. Marcia Stewart: Great "creep with the puppies" dialogue exchange. You had me hooked, and Dave and Suzie sounded very different from one another. An added bonus:
    The fictitious mother dog that jumped out of the car brought a third personality into the mix.

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  18. Just revisited this blog from today's. Marked it as a "TO READ AGAIN!' when I go back to really work on my character's voices. many thanks.

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  19. I just thought I'd say it now, but your articles are SO HELPFUL. Thank you! I even have a plot where there was none thanks to these. :)

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    Replies
    1. Aw, thanks! That makes me so happy to hear that.

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