Friday, January 10, 2020

5 Ways to Develop Character Voices

character voice, creating character voices, creating characters
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you want memorable characters, don't forget to give them unique voices. 

One of my earliest experiences with how voice affected fiction was in seventh grade, when my English teach played us a record (yes, record, I'm dating myself here) of Harlan Ellison reading his short story, "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktock Man. Not only was I blown away by the story, but by the way Ellison crafted the narrative. The voice was unique.

It wasn't until years later I learned there was a difference between author voice and character voice, but the lesson on "strong voice = strong story" had been stamped into my brain. Character voice is simply an extension of author voice.

A well-crafted character steps off the page and into readers' hearts, and a big part of that is their voice. Readers can see personality in the words that character uses, in the thoughts they think, and things they choose to say--or not say.

If the characters all sound the same, readers can forget who is who, and they wind up blending together into one big character mush. (And really, who likes mush?). Readers can easily forget which mushy character was part of which scene, so you risk the entire plot falling apart. All your wonderful twists and turns could be ruined because readers mixed up Antonio and Lou, or forgot which character did what when.

To avoid this terrible literary fate, let's look at some ways to develop a unique voice for every character.

1. How does the character 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, what have you been up to?" 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.
  • Is she announces her presence with a giant "Hey everyone, I'm here!" then maybe she likes to draw attention to herself. She might be the type of person 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.
First impressions are made with that first greeting, so let it show readers who this character is.

(Here's more on How to Find Your Character's Voice)

character voice, creating character voices, creating characters

2. How does the character answer questions?

Someone who only gives one-word answers comes across differently from one who offers way-too-much information. Maybe the character is being evasive, indicating a lie, or maybe they're just shy. Saying too much might signal nervousness, or a deliberate attempt to confuse, or even just reveal excitement.
  • If the character is reluctant to answer, he might be a guy who doesn't like to talk a lot or reveal too much about himself. 
  • If the character says too much, she 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. 
A character's voice gives writers opportunities to build layers of personality for that character. Readers will figure out who they are based on how they verbally interact with others in the story.

(Here's more on How Does Your Character Answer Questions?)

3. Does the character make questions or statements?

This is an important aspect of how a character decides to act and how they make a decision. Someone who judges a situation and immediately says what has to be done is a different personality type from someone who questions all sides of the problem before making a decision.
  • If he's a jump-to-it guy who always knows what to do (even when he's wrong), he might sound bossy or confident. 
  • If she's a thoughtful gal, she 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 probably won't make statements about what has to be done in a problem, even if she happens to know exactly what to do. She's not bold enough to take charge, so she poses questions to get everyone thinking on the right track. 
  • The attention hog who greets everyone by name and makes sure they all know he's there will likely jump right in and share what he thinks, even if he has no idea what's going on.
See how a simple greeting can define what that character is like in other aspects of their life? All of these small verbal interactions are connected to a larger personality type.

(Here's more on 5 Tips for Using Voice in Dialogue)

4. How educated is the character?

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 to sound more educated?
  • That boisterous greeter who makes statements instead of asking questions, might be insecure about his lack of education, so he overcompensates by always acting like he knows what to do or what's going on. 
  • The meek greeter might ask questions because she's not sure she really understands what's happening and doesn't want to appear dumb. 
  • The friendly greeter might ask 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. 
People are motivated by different things, and they aren't always the most obvious things. Think about why you character speaks as they do.

(Here's more on Fix Your Reader’s Pet Peeves: Stereotypes and Characters)

5. Where's did the character grow up?

writing characters who don't sound the same, character voiceRegions 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 suggest his background or upbringing. 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 is 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.
Early life experiences and lessons shape who we are, and that holds true for characters as well.

(Here's more on How to Write Characters Who Don’t All Feel the Same)

Personality plays a large role in how a character 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 they way they do.

How do your characters speak? What determines their voices?

*Originally published June 2013. Last updated January 2020.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

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)


  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. ^_^

  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!

    1. I hear you, LinWash. In my current WIP, a 13-year-old boy has to process the idea of his mother getting remarried to his father's brother (to whom the boy is very close), after having lost his father in an industrial accident.

      Trying to figure out the wild emotions that would scramble such a boy's thoughts, mixed with developing hormones, has been the toughest writing I have ever done. I ended up reading a book by a woman who lost her husband after a 12-hour illness, which gave me some insight. I also consulted with one of my nephews, whose mother died of cancer when he was only 9. Although the circumstances are much different, my nephew's revelations gave me more insight, which I processed for several weeks, rereading his remarks, before working through the chapter.

      I'm a great proponent of consulting those who have experience in the topic I'm stuck in.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.”

  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.

  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.”

  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.)

  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.

  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.”

  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.”

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

  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.”

  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.”

  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.”


    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.”

  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.

  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.

  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. :)

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

  20. Great post, as usual! I agree that switching POVs is an excellent way of telling a story. Playing with dialogue is something I should work on though. Thanks for sharing!

    ChatEbooks recently posted

  21. I would also include what is the character's "wound". It could easily color the other aspects of his or her voice.

    1. Absolutely. I picked five ways, but there are plenty more :)