"Say What?!" or Creating Distinctive Character Voices in Writing
Hello! And welcome again to the Everything’s All Write podcast blog. Today's topic is, “Say What?!” otherwise known as the episode where we take a good look at character voice. What is character voice? Well, when most people think about it, the first thing you consider when you're considering what the actual distinctive voice your character in a story may have you think about dialogue, and that is part of what defines and is a recognizable component of a distinct character voice. But it's not the end all be all. In fact, it's only one of many considerations you have to work with when you're building what's essentially going to be the taste and tone of your particular character.
Now, I did say that it’s not, you know, simply relying on dialogue but there is a quote that highlights dialogue as one of the major components that I’ve always really liked and have utilized when considering my own characters. Famous playwright David Mamet is known for saying “All good dialogue happens because a character wants a result,” and it's… I think he puts too much emphasis on the aspect of dialogue (and I'll get back to that in a minute) but what he does here is he distills the essence of the purpose of having that character voice. Every character wants something. They want to accomplish, something to achieve, something won, something, whether that is positive or negative good or bad for them or the world at large, there is something they are out to get. And one of the ways they interact with the world is, of course, going to be their voice, and so, that's a major component in them achieving whatever they're, you know, intended results is. So, if you think of every time your character interacts with another character whether that be you know spoken language or even body language, they’re working on trying to get something out of it, some specific result, and so, you want to consider how is the best way to achieve that result. And you can think of it this way, if let's say you have a messy roommate and you want to get them to and remind them to you know pick up after themselves. Well, if the result you want is simply for them to pick up after themselves, you could say the same basic order a million different ways and get a million different results that would include that. You know you might tell them, “Hey sloppy man, clean up all your stuff!”
Okay… not my most clever writing but I'm on the spot.
Or you could say like you know, “hey roomie, you know ever since that meeting you know we talked about picking up our stuff, could you get on that?” or you could “you, forgot to clean up again, Steve.” Now, each one of those statements (lame as they were) all had the same purpose or same intended purpose of getting the desired result: roommate cleaning up after himself. But depending on how it was said would be taken by that roommate any number of ways they can affect that result. They may decide not to clean up out of spite. They may clean up, but now they've marked you as passive aggressive. You know, anything. And so, not only does your character have to make the choice to verbalize their desire by engaging with something or somebody else but their current emotional state, their general agreeableness, their ability to adapt and behave respectful of social cues, this is all going to affect how they verbalize, how they voice themselves. The desire is the same, but the delivery can change and the delivery changing is what constitutes character voice.
So, let's take it back to where the voice is coming from, the character. Characters in a story, whether a novella or novel, they're not just talking heads. They’re… or at least they shouldn't be. They shouldn't be these flat kind of placeholders with a name. They should be people. They’re the people in your story, so they should reflect, as much as you know possibly can, on a written page, a person in every sense and form. That means, that character, in its own way, needs to have an amalgamation of motivations, intentions, social influences, and lived experiences that dictate, or at least shape, how they interact. How they speak. How they behave. What body language they display. Just like in real life, those are the same things—motivations, intentions, and social influences, and lived experiences—that affect how we interact with one another. They are representing people, if not specifically or historically, but in the sense of complete human beings, and the closer you can get to your characters embodying that outlook, that a “human being is on the page” outlook, the more your readers are able to immerse themselves in your story and accept it, you know, on the terms that are given. Even if you're doing something like fantasy where every aspect of the world itself, the Galaxy in which they live, is turned on its head or different, if they can still identify with your characters on a human level in that they reflect the depth and variability of humanity then they will go on that ride with you they'll do so happily.
Now, that's not saying that you have to know every single moment in detail of each of your character’s lives you would never complete a story because we're always slightly changing and evolving as a person. But you do want to have enough material that the gaps that are presented or that may come up during the course of story are overshadowed by the wealth of information we do have. And just like, you know, in real life when we're dealing with other people or even ourselves, we don't know everything there is to know about them or us. So, you have to just give them enough to be comfortable that this is a person. It’s just a person I am still getting to know, and if you can do that now you're in a position to hear what that character has to say. And that's what you really want to achieve. You want to be able to hear your character speak. Now you're in a position to hear what that character has to say. And that's what you really want to achieve. You want to be able to hear your character speak. Now, I know myself, that's not always a level I've been able to get to, and I would say probably at least half of my pieces that I've written. But there are half that I have achieved this moment where I'm not thinking of what would this character say now that he, you know, he's in this situation or that someone has said this to him. How would he respond? Now, I hear that character in my head respond for me, and I'll have to do with capture it on the page.
I know enough about their lives, their backstory, their childhood, their fears, their talents. I know all of this about them, and so, I don't have to predict what is going to be said. I just kind of allow my imagination to say it, and when you can get to the point that you can hear your character speak to you, they are providing the voice that you're going to write in. And, in the course of that, you will pick up certain things that reflect that character. Like if you know that this character is always walking the line between confidence and arrogance and every time it tips over that's when his fortunes turn on him, he's going to speak a certain way. He's not going to be demur. He's not going to mumble. He's going to be assertive and forthright and probably a little loud. And you know all these things, but you can't… it's hard sometimes to right loud in your work in terms of dialogue, but the way in which a line is delivered, the words chosen, those things can be read off the page and translated by the reader as, you know, he's yelling or is at least higher than normal conversational tones. So, hearing it physically in your head the voices of your characters that puts you well ahead of the pack and toward the end of forming, creating, defining, and ultimately revising your character's actual voice.
Now, you also have to kind of prime your brain to work on the skill, and that just knowing your characters enough but you also need to know how dialogue actually reveals itself in the page so the knowledge of your craft and the knowledge of your character end up combining to give you that voice. Now, there are two camps about how people see written, you know, conversation—what the characters are actually saying—and there's a group that believes that character dialogue is never going to be natural. It's more like, you know, actor dialogue. It’s distilled to its most streamline and beautiful form to accomplish the goal of the film, movie, manuscript, whatever it may be. But there's another party of people that think that real dialogue or dialog done well is a reflection of normal speak. It is natural. It is problematic. It is full of unnecessary utterances, it's got grammatical errors, you know, but that's natural speech. And so, there's no right, wrong, good, bad, better, for either choice but it is a distinctive style that you might want to go ahead and reconcile if you haven't already determined this for yourself which camp you're trying to write in because the only wrong choice would be the inconsistent one. So, I would recommend that you know if you're going for writing that reflects natural speech, or are you looking for the aesthetic, you know, the coherency of a piece. And there's crossover but you still need to kind of have your ideal in mind.
If you're leaning toward the distilled aesthetic, you know perfect form, then I would definitely suggest that you spend some time actually reading some scripts. They can be for plays, they can be TV or film, it doesn't really matter but they’re great at distilling dialogue to its necessaries while still retaining character voice. I’d pay attention to whatever TV shows that you favor particularly if they’re dramas, and that also applies to film. Your focus is not so much on what the characters are saying but what makes what one character says different from the other another character in the same scene. If character A said this and it had these qualities—it was soft, it was barely coherent, it was mumbled and followed with body language where they were looking at the ground versus another character—in that scene who was almost yelling and staring down one particular character you know, note the differences and note how those differences also inform what you know about the character or provide you with new information about a character that maybe you were suspicious about. But I would definitely start enjoying those media moments but with a new, keener observation or observational eye.
If you're leaning toward doing more natural and realistic dialogue, then I would say you need to go out and sit in coffee shops when it's safe or someplace where you can social distance but still be in earshot of humanity and listen to conversations. However, let me put this PSA out there…
Please do not eavesdrop on conversations that are A) obviously confidential or that make you look in any way creepy. I am not responsible for any amount of creepiness you get for listening to people in public. That is all.
Now, that said, people watching, it has always been known to be helpful to writers, but I would say people listing is just as helpful because you don't know these people but as you listen to what they say, how they say it, you can start to form an idea of what type of person this is. Now, ultimately you won't know if you're right or wrong. It doesn't matter. If you can connect the dots, then you can help your readers connect the dots. Also, keep in mind that voices, character voices, can change. Whatever your original design for them, that can evolve and grow over the course of your writing (particularly I'm thinking of you novelists at the moment) but as experience shapes the voice it continues to shape the voice as they continue to have experiences in your world or in your story. So, don't be afraid when the voice that you're hearing, you know, starts take on slightly different qualities that just means your character is growing and that growth is real enough to affect all the aspects of that character.
Also, keep in mind that, in a scene, characters, in general, do not talk to themselves. They tend to interact with other characters in that scene, so who they are talking to at any given moment and to some extent the place where they're having this conversation but particularly who they're talking to can change the way they speak in that moment or the way they come across as far as their natural voice indicators or body language can be very different. For example, your character may be, you know, a cowboy that's used to going it alone and roughing it and doesn't spend time or money on fancy words but he will still most likely talk to his mother differently when he visits her back on the ranch then he would talk to a stranger in the road, or the local town bad boys always causing trouble and you know breaking furniture and getting drunk versus a pretty lady he might fancy. He doesn't change who he is. And ultimately certain things are always going to be present just as part of his personality but there will be subtle changes in the way he engages with these people and those changes are generally seen on the page through the description of body language and dialogue. So, always be cognizant of the other person in the room with your character who was engaging with them in dialogue and make sure that's on your radar as you plot what they're going to say.
Now, we've kind of talked around it or I've kind of talked around you know the things that you can do to manipulate a character’s voice once you have an idea of who that character is, so let's discuss what those little manipulators are. What are those knobs and things that you can tweak and turn and twist to get exactly the combination you want? Well, this is not a complete list, but it should give you a general idea of those variables that can be used to alter character voice: word choice – do they tend to pick formal words or more casual informal words? Are they American that has a fondness for using archaic words or pronunciation? Do they prefer British pronunciation or British spelling? In this case too. Do they prefer, you know, more violent words or softer words that are more or less kind of wishy washy, the squishy words? Saying the same sentence but with a slightly different word choice, just like it causes a different emotional tone to it, it can also reflect a different character voice or at least their emotional tone as they're speaking, if not a pattern of behavior. So, word choice is definitely something that strongly affects your character voice. Something as simple as how often they use profanity or do they use profanity at all? Is it sprinkled in, you know, like salt or does it happen every so often like, you know, you hit a pepper in the middle of your food, or is it not there at all and the meal is still tasty but maybe lacks a little spice? But your use or exclusion of profanity can definitely affect character voice. Maybe whether the character is optimistic or pessimistic, if they’re an optimist you know she may look for the bright side on even the most dire situations even when it's ridiculous to do so because it seems like all hope is lost but that's the kind of person she is, and so that will reflect in her actual speaking. Even if she doesn't believe it herself, but it's just who she is. Or pessimistic, no matter how great
things are going all of her stuff, anything that she says or engages in will seem on a surface level like it's positive, but if you really think about it then they just diss this” That's the kind of tone that you would want to reflect in her voice or her voice should reflect that kind of tone because that's how we've established character is.
Other more mechanical things like the rhythm of the sentence, the sentence structure itself, the sentence order, all of these can affect character voice and make it distinctive or not distinctive. For example, George Lucas, Yoda no one will mistake someone sounding like Yoda or I can’t tell in the dialogue who speaking? Is at Yoda or Obi Wan? Yoda’s speech pattern is highly unique or at least in the western world entirely unique because of its word order and so it makes everything sound cryptic which gives him an extremely aberrant but extremely useful tool for making his voice distinctive as distinctive as, you know, befits such a character because we're dealing with a several 100-year-old tiny alien they can kick major butt. So, he needed something that was as different and strong a character for his character voice, and it works because everyone knows the Yoda speak.
Now, that said, I feel it is incumbent upon me to issue this fair warning: I know some of you were thinking that well why don't you use accents to you know make your character distinctive? Yes, you can do that, you can use, you know, accents or regional dialects or other patois to indicate that character voice, but it is a very difficult thing to do well and an easy thing to do that will offend. If you are insistent that this is the voice you need… when I say having an accent in the written form I mean that dialogue is written in such a way as to phonetically reflect that dialect or accent or patois, so if you're going to do that number one think about is it necessary for your story, and if the answer is yes, yes it is necessary, then by all means go that route. There are people, authors who have done this and done it absolutely beautifully. But the amateur writer will screw it up and if it actually makes it a publication you run a risk with offending, you know, a whole region or nationality or ethnicity or community of people and that wasn't your intent. So, number one: be sure. If you're certain, number two: do your research. Make sure you're getting an accurate representation of the dialect that you are trying to reflect on the page. So, certainty and accuracy, and last thing, get a beta reader specifically for that purpose. Sensitivity readers as sometimes they're called to make sure that you've gotten that line of artistic representation versus caricature or stereotype. So, it's always good to have someone read for that specific eye.
At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words or in this case character description of action can often speak much louder than the dialogue that is given to the character. Body language is powerful for communicating much of what you need your characters to communicate to either achieve their goal or betray it. Either way, it's a much richer and just wonderful resource and wealth to utilized to help present your character to the world.
So, now that we have a better idea of what character voice is, what it's composed of how it can be manipulated and tweaked to serve its own purpose, let's look at how you actually create the character voice. What are the practical ways in achieving that kind of synchrony with between the author and the character that their voice comes through loud and clear. Well, stay tuned for some tips and tricks on how to do just that.
Tips & Tricks
Here are some tips and tricks to help you create a character that has a clear and distinct character voice. We're going to do this one a little bit differently. I'm not going to so much count off different tips and or tricks that can be applied, but instead make a suggestion of an activity to engage in to help accomplish this.
In this case, I would say character interviews can be priceless when it comes to making sure that that voice comes through loud and clear and distinctive from other characters within your work. This can be as simple and streamlined as a profile or more detailed and involved and in-depth like an interview, and I'll go over tactics for both. If you create a character profile, and I highly recommend you do this for any main characters in your piece of writing, you want to consider things like age, nationality and I mean specific nationality down to the neighborhood or community in which they grew up not just the country of origin, their educational history, what kind of grades they made because that's going to have an effect on you know them as an adult to some extent, their work experience and whether some of that work experience was super short, super long, physical labor, intellectual property working, whatever it was will have a shape on it, so being specific as possible. Any of their talents, their flaws and some of the most formative or notable life experiences like obvious things like trauma, were they abused or have PTSD? But happy things like are they married, the wedding day, or the honeymoon, or the birth of their first child, or the time a pet died. Any of those notable, formative, memorable experiences you want to have an immediate and concrete grasp of. So, at a minimum, these are things I would put in a character profile, and I would answer each and every entry as specifically as you possibly can.
I'm not saying that these details will show up specifically in your story or be bluntly written down, but you as the author need to have the answers to these questions because they will affect and influence the voice with which your character speaks. Now, if you want to take it a step further you can conduct a character interview and that is the same premise of the profile except the questions go deeper and what you're trying to do is not so much interview yourself for the answers for this character. Instead, you want to interview the character and imagine that that character is giving you the answer as if you were conducting an interview. So, you might ask your character what experience defines their lives/their life? And you want to think as if you were the character when you're responding. What would that pivotal experience be? What would that character’s answer be? You created them, so you know everything there is to know about them you just now have to think in specifics. Things that were kind of nebulous and in your consideration, make specific. Pull out that memory, come up with an answer for that character. What does your character value most? What do they fear most? What are their hopes for the future? What do they want to achieve? How would their best friend describe them in a single word? These questions are the ones that are harder because you're not answering like I said for the character you're answering as them but forcing yourself to get into their headspace will ultimately help you stay in that space when you need to be there. And that's what will help ensure that your character ultimately has a clear, distinctive, and more importantly, consistent character voice throughout your piece.
Now, let’s put our pens where are words are and put what we’ve learned into practice! Here is you’re bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
In 500 words or less, I want you to write a brief paragraph describing a chosen character’s backstory. You can start it from anywhere. You can have the person telling the story themselves. You can be writing it in the third person. But something that is a snapshot of their entire life or just maybe a part of their childhood or anecdotal thing that happened to them, but something that contributes to the backstory and to the complex weave that makes that character that way. To enter our challenge contest just send your description in to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “character voice.” The winner’s piece will be posted on the aslewisbooks.com website and we’ll give a shout out to them in a future podcast episode. And speaking of winners, let's see the winning entry for the “point of view” challenge! And the winner is… Milo D. for his entry of a point of view in the second person
You won't be found this time, not first. This time you know you picked the best space. Behind the living room curtain? That's a baby's hiding space. Under the dining room table? What are you three? No, you’re five now, a big boy. You even go to school now with backpacks, teachers, and everything, so this time, you're gonna play like the big boy you are in the kitchen cabinet. No toes out for you. No giggle to give away your spot. You could have gone under the bed, but that's where the monsters live. Not that you're afraid, but who wants to hide next to a monster? You're a brave, big boy, but monsters? No way!
Congratulations, Milo! Keep up the good work. Next episode, we will highlight the winner for “setting and description” as well as “character voice.” And remember, if you send in your work, it could be you featured in the podcast and on the website!
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off.
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