Writing Tip Tuesday: Giving Your Characters Voice

May 26, 2009 · 8 comments

I’ve read several novels lately where all the characters sound the same; you can’t tell them apart without a dialogue tag. Sometimes I’ve even had to retrace a conversation between two people back to the last dialogue tag and then count them out to know who’s talking.

Ooops. Not a good thing.

Here are some tips for giving your characters unique voices:

  • Spend some time getting to know your characters as people. Who are they? What are they like? What’s their backstory? When you know your characters well, they become unique individuals to you—with unique language patterns.
  • Give your characters favorite words or expressions. You don’t want to overdo this or, well, does “Holy overdone expressions, Batman” give you an idea?
  • Loosely base your characters on people you know—how would they say it? Then tweak it a bit.
  • Go hang out where people like your characters are. Listen to the way they talk. Incorporate that into your dialogue.
  • Read your dialogue aloud—as if you were performing it on stage. Does it sound right?

Readers, what tips or tricks do you use to give (and keep) your characters’ voices unique?

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{ 8 comments }

Annette Lyon May 26, 2009 at 7:27 am

Like you said, if you really know your characters, you’ll know how they’ll say something. You need to see their world view. A six-year-old girl won’t talk about things the same way Mork would from the old TV show.

Just get your own voice out of the way. When I see all the characters sounding alike, to me it’s a clue that that’s what the AUTHOR sounds like and how they’d say it.

Anonymous May 26, 2009 at 10:41 am

Isn’t dialogue a very small part of giving your character voice?

Isn’t there a lot more to this than word choice and speech patterns?

I can think of at least five or six simple-to-understand and use voice enhancing ideas that I would rank above speech patterns to develope a strong, unique voice for each of your characters.

LDS_Publisher May 26, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Well, then, Anonymous. What are they?

Anonymous May 27, 2009 at 7:24 am

Are you kidding? You want me to share my voice enhancing secrets? I’ll have to think about it for a while.

Nancy Campbell Allen May 27, 2009 at 10:52 am

You know, voice aside, I also don’t go farther than four lines of dialogue exchange without an identifying tag. Either someone does something, (moves, gestures), or I throw in a simple “she said.” I remember reading somewhere that four lines is a good yardstick, and It’s the one I always follow. Works well for me.

Anonymous May 27, 2009 at 11:53 am

I’ll only share my voice secrets if Nancy Campbell Allen will share more of hers, including why the Jewel is such a good book and if there will ever be a Civil War sequel.

onelowerlight May 27, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Orson Scott Card does some really amazing dialogue. He also wrote a lot of plays, so perhaps it would be good to look for some screenwriting/playwriting advice on this one.

I think there is a point where if you try too hard, it will become counterproductive. I make sure that I know my characters first, then get out of the way and let them speak.

Tristi Pinkston May 28, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I think “getting out of the way,” like onelowerlight said, is pretty good advice. Once the character is real to you, they move and breathe and talk on their own. Just step to the side and let them go at it.

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