How to Write Unique Character Voices

Yoda and Bad Grammar

Have you ever read a book but couldn’t get into the story because the characters were so flat? There could be many reasons why a character is flat, but the one being discussed here is in regard to the way they speak. When everyone speaks in the same way, it makes it difficult for the reader to see them as individuals. It also makes it difficult for the reader to tell who is speaking if there are no tags present.

If you’ve been reading my sci-fi story, you have probably noticed that I’m in no way an expert at making each of my characters speak differently. But I’ve been studying the subject intensely and have been trying to apply what I’ve learned. Here are some general ideas on how to make each character sound unique:

Word Choice

Different people often use different words for the same things. Example 1 – One person may go around saying ‘awesome’ all the time while another may say ‘cool’ or ‘nifty’. Example 2 – One person may use a lot of big words while another person would use simpler words. Example 3 – One person could speak in a more formal manner while another uses more slang. Example 4 and the one I’ve used for a few of my characters – One person never curses while another curses all the time.

Word Order

Yoda from Star Wars would be a great example of word order. Instead of, “You have become powerful. I sense the dark side in you,” he says, “Powerful you have become. The dark side I sense in you.” Another example would be in Spanish versus English. In English, we say, “The yellow book,” but a direct translation from Spanish “El libro amarillo,” is “The book yellow.”

mordor-grammar

Grammar

Have you ever noticed that not everyone speaks in proper English? Someone had pointed out how one of my characters said, “From who?” instead of the proper, “From whom?” How many people do you know who actually say the word ‘whom’? There are a few, I’m sure. But I personally seldom ever hear the word. Also, how many people say words improperly, like ‘irregardless’ or ‘supposably’? It’s okay to have misspelled or mispronounced words when a character is speaking. However, be careful not to overdo it or it will annoy your reader. Here is a great resource for words that are often pronounced incorrectly – http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/style-and-usage/mispron.html

Idioms

If you’re writing in close-third person, even your descriptions should be closely aligned with the character. For example, one of the characters in my story describes things or uses idioms related to animals. So when he describes a color, he describes it in a way that relates to an animal. Some characters may also speak their idioms out loud, such as, “knee-high to a grasshopper” or “uglier than sin”. Keep idioms in mind whether the character is speaking them, thinking them, or describing the scene around him.

Foreign Words

One of my main characters occasionally uses foreign words. Make sure to use the foreign word so that the reader can still understand it based on its context. The reader might not know what the word ‘koshinuke’ means but in the right context they might realize it means ‘coward’. As with misspoken words, be careful not to use too many foreign words or it will annoy your reader.

Filler Words

Filler words are meaningless words. Perhaps one of your characters says, ‘um’ a lot. Or they may begin almost every sentence with, ‘Well…” Also, perhaps they also end just about every sentence with a word or phrase such as, ‘ey?’ or “ya know?’. Here are some great examples I’ve found – http://blog.brandyourself.com/product-tutorials/6-filler-words-that-wont-get-you-hired/

Other Ideas

How about a character with a lot of faith? Perhaps they say, ‘Thank God’ or ‘Thank the Lord’ a lot. Maybe they give a lot of blessings or offer prayers. Other ideas – overly polite characters, blunt characters, characters who talk a lot, characters who keep it short and simple, characters who mispronounce certain letters, characters who sigh a lot, and so much more!

Listen to how different people speak and take note of the different words they use. Does a doctor speak differently from a farmer? Does a policeman speak differently than a politician? Does someone whose native language is Chinese speak differently than someone from Australia? Listen and learn and you too can develop unique character voices.

*****

In addition to writing unique character voices, here are four ways you can show which of your characters is speaking:

Three ways to tell who is speaking:

  1. With tags like ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’. (Note, avoid using too many creative tags like ‘he insisted’ or ‘she hissed’. Readers tend to skim over the more common said and replied tags and get hung up on creative tags. Besides, the character’s actions and the construction of their speech should speak for themselves. Another point is people don’t hiss or growl words. So if you use a creative tag, use it sparingly and use it appropriately.)
  2. With actions. For example, instead of “Don’t do that,” Mike said, say, Mike shook his finger. “Don’t do that.” Incidentally, different gestures might be another way you can distinguish your characters. For example, perhaps Mary crosses her arms a lot or George twitches his mouth when he’s thinking.
  3. With the character’s unique voice. Take Yoda, for example. For anyone writing fan-fiction, there is no reason to say, Yoda said. Simply writing in the unique way he speaks will tell the reader who is speaking.
  4. With tone. Perhaps this is just my own technique, but in some situations I like to describe the tone in which the speaker is speaking. I don’t use this technique often. It’s usually only used when I want to emphasize how a character might have a different sounding voice or when my character is using a different tone than usual and I can’t seem to find any other way to convey it. For example, “If you ever do that again…” Mike’s tone rumbled from the lowest octave. Another example, “So, what’cha up to?” Jake’s voice was naturally gruff, but there was a friendliness to his tone. Here is a link I found on other ways to describe a tone of voice – http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/thesaurus-category/american/words-used-to-describe-someone-s-voice

If you have any other ideas on how to write unique character voices or to show who is speaking in your story, please comment below.

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