Writing Tip: Giving Characters Their Distinct Voice

Writing TipHow many times have you heard, all the characters sound the same? Probably more than once. One of my exercises the past few months is reading reviews on Amazon. I don’t bother reading the four and five stars. They don’t tell me what I want to know: what a story lacks.

One of the pet peeves of readers I see often is lack of distinct character voice. One reviewer went as far as to give an example of how characters can make themselves individuals and sound more distinct.

Using his example as a guide, I created my own example:

If I stubbed my toe, I’d say damn. If my teenage daughter did the same, she’d say crap. We are different generations—which certainly sets us apart—but we are also different people who grew up in different neighbourhoods.

Quiz – Can you identify the television characters by these comments?

These characters said these words repeatedly. The answers are below.

  • “Aaay.”
  • “Holy Toledo.”
  • “Fascinating.”

What they saidI thought about how I could use this idea in my own stories, particular my fantasy novels that are home to dozens of characters. What would Bronwyn say in a given situation compared to what Alaura would?

I decided to make a chart for the four main characters starring in Scattered Stones. I know them well, so I have a strong idea of what each would say. By creating the chart, I can consistently use their words when they are thinking or speaking.

Here’s a Sample

Bronwyn Darrow: Rude, considerate, in other words, orc’s curse, I’m sorry

  • That was rude.
  • He is a considerate man.
  • In other words, you should come with me.
  • Ah! The orc’s curse!
  • I’m sorry for not believing you.

Alaura of Niamh: Impolite, compassionate, in other words, goodness, I apologise

  • That was impolite.
  • He is a compassionate man.
  • In other words, you come with me.
  • Goodness! Hold on.
  • I apologise for doubting you.

Tam Mulryan: Offensive, concerned, she means, grunts, accept my apologies

  • It’s offensive.
  • He’s a respectful man.
  • She means, you’re coming with me.
  • He grunted, but otherwise remained silent.
  • Please, accept my apologies.

Kellyn Mulryan: Crude, kind, to be blunt (more like), dingleberry/consummated idiot/jerk, sorry

  • That’s crude.
  • He’s a kind man.
  • To be blunt, you’re coming with me. (More like, get your arse over here.)
  • Of all the dingleberries!
  • “Sorry,” she said, mumbling under breath, “Not like you didn’t deserve it.”

Have you deliberately made a list  of sayings to give characters their distinct voice? Or does this come naturally in your story?

Answers to the Quiz

  • “Aaaay,” said Fonzie. (Happy Days)
  • “Holy Toledo,” said Corporal Klinger. (M*A*S*H)
  • “Fascinating,” said Spock (Star Trek)McGyver Blog banner 05 Tibert Roots
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16 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Giving Characters Their Distinct Voice

  1. This post is really helpful Diane. I try to do the same. I plan it in advance and then the characters take over, sometimes telling me that I got it wrong. By the end of the first draft, the patterns are solidifying. For a later draft, I revise by pov. I might read all of Gannon’s sections, for example, so I can make the vocal quirks and attitudes distinct and consistent. It’s actually one of the more enjoyable parts of revising. 🙂

    • Diana, I hear what you’re saying; my characters are self-reliant. They choose the words they want to use regardless of what I say. I try to have some type of organisation, and they laugh at me.

      That’s a good idea: to read a character’s section individually. Often I will read only the dialogue in a conversation, using different voices for each character. I’ve tried to solicit my kids to claim a character and script read with me, but they keep turning me down.

      Thank you for visiting, and for leaving a comment.

  2. I don’t think it comes naturally to me, in general I try to focus on writing what sounds most natural in spoken speech then go back over the story later on to see if the words match the character 🙂

    • I don’t think it comes naturally to me all the time either. Although for some characters–like Kellyn–she’s going to say things the others wouldn’t dare, so her voice comes through. Minor characters are something I have to work on. They probably all sound the same. I’m making an effort to change that.

      I do that too with dialogue: focus on writing what sounds most natural in spoken speech.

      Thanks for visiting, Millie, and for leaving a comment.

      • That’s fantastic that you have a character with a real voice that stands out! Must be fun to write. I’m always worried that my main character might sound too much like me! If all else fails for me, I do try to focus on the use of silence, pauses and facial expressions to convey personality more so then through what they say. (so hopefully my use of things other then dialogue can affect how the ‘voice’ is received by the reader)

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