I have family in town this week, so here's another look at ways to write characters who don't sound like you. Enjoy!
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 offer 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.
(Here's more on how your characters answer questions)
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 gal might appear hesitant or meek (even when she's not) or might seem wise because she 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 clichés? 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?)
(Here's more on stereotypes and characters)
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 dialogue 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.
How do your characters speak? What determines their voices?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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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. CONTEST CLOSED (but feel free to do the exercise if you'd like)