A lot of writers struggle to make their characters’ speaking voices distinct. Don’t believe me? Open two or three books you’ve already read to a random page, find the first line of dialogue, and see if you can tell who’s speaking without looking at the tag. Odds are, for at least one of these books, you won’t be able to.
In fairness, it’s not possible to make every line uniquely characteristic of one particular person. There are only so many ways people can say ‘no’, for example. But you should be able to differentiate between the two or more people speaking in a given scene without needing a tag or a name in every line.
How can this be accomplished? Well, here are five things I like to consider when ‘inventing’ each character’s voice.
Almost everyone has a subset of words that may not be totally unique to them but that they use with a frequency or in a particular pattern that is unique to them. As an example, think about your own vocab. Do you address other people as hon? Dude? Y’all? Do you abbreviate words (e.g., ‘dece’) or use a lot of local slang? How do you answer the phone when you know it’s a friend calling? When it’s work calling? When the number’s unknown? Are you more inclined to use five syllable words or ones with fewer than three syllables?
Put together vocab lists for all of your characters who speak regularly. It doesn’t need to be long, and they don’t need to use all (or any) of the vocab every time they speak, but knowing what words they are or are not inclined to use regularly can really help to make their voices stand out.
Are you characters given to long pronouncements, or are they generally short and to the point? Take a moment and listen to a conversation happening nearby (or recall one you’ve heard recently). Some people speak in rambling sentences, while others tend to be shorter and more clipped. Most people vary sentence length up to some degree, but are still inclined more toward one style or the other. Everyone tends toward one extreme or the other when very emotional (excited, angry, upset – each emotion may lead to different speaking patterns).
The length of spoken sentences reflects a lot on characters’ personalities. If they’re very bristly, distracted, or just plain shy, people often speak in shorter sentences. If they like talking – and being listened to – or if they’re very opinionated, they may use longer sentences. Think about your characters’ personalities and reflect on how those traits might affect the rhythms of their speech.
3. Thought Patterns
Everyone thinks differently. While one person needs to go from A to B to C in order to reach D, another is comfortable moving straight from A to D, and a third starts at D and moves back to A. When people are hashing something out aloud (for example, how to cross a town overrun by zombies), their speech generally reflects their thought patterns. One person is just worried about how to get down the street, while the other begins with the point they want to reach and works backward.
Consider how each of your characters think. Thought patterns, like speech rhythms, are likely to reflect each character’s personality. Someone who focuses on the trees instead of the forest may have trouble jumping straight to the end goal, and so may ramble a bit before reaching a conclusion. Someone who can only see the forest may have trouble sorting out the steps between its edge and the other side. Figure out how each character thinks, and then figure out how to reflect that thought pattern in speech.
How emotional are your characters? Do they demonstrate their emotions in their speech, or only in other ways? Characters who emote aloud are more likely to curse or use other exclamations. Someone who shows emotions in other ways may be less inclined to call another character a jerk than to punch him in the face. Others may wish to express emotions aloud but be unable to (or at least not very good at it), which may be reflected through struggling to find the rights words or stumbling through passionate speech.
How emotionally expressive is your characters’ speech? Are they inclined to shout every time they stub a toe or someone annoys them, or do they demonstrate anger/frustration/upset/excitement in other ways, and not let emotion leak into their speech? Think about whether your characters give voice to every emotion, just a few, or none at all.
5. Outside Influence
Everyone’s speech – and I mean everyone’s – is influenced by the people around them. The more time you spend with people, the more influence they have.
Consider who your characters spend the most time with. Family members? Specific friends? Classmates? Zombies? Chances are, there’s more than one group or person they’re around regularly. How do those other people talk? In what ways do other peoples’ speech patterns and vocab affect your characters’ speech patterns and vocab? Maybe your main character has picked up a lot of slang from their bestie but speaks in short, abrupt sentences because that’s the way everyone talks at home. Think about the way your characters’ voices overlap.
How do you make your characters’ voices distinct? Share any tips and tricks in the comments!