Being a Better Writer: Character Voice

Hey readers! Welcome back!

I know. It’s been a slow week from your perspective. The last major post here was another Being a Better Writer post last Monday. I said nothing else all week.

It’s because I was keeping busy. I’ve thrown myself headlong into Jungle edits, currently on  chapter … 37? Of 42. I think. Not important. The vital detail is that I edited something like 120,000 words last week. This week will see every single chapter up for the current group of Alpha Readers.

Oh, Hunter/Hunted beta calls will go out this week, too. I gotta finish up some of these plates so I can stop juggling them. And then pick up more.

This week there will be more than just Being a Better Writer, so check back. Got some thoughts on things here and there, as usual. But that’s for later.

For now, I want to talk about character voice.

Character voice is one of those unique elements that can make or break your story. Imagine, if you would for a moment, that you’ve gone to see an animated movie. The particular film doesn’t matter. Picture a favorite. You pull out the Blu-ray, walk into the theater, whatever, sit down, and the first character comes up and speaks. There’s their voice. Cool. Whatever.

Then the second character opens their mouth to respond … and it’s the same voice. The same VA, clearly the same person who did the first voice. And they do the third voice. And the fourth. And the fifth.

No changes. No switches to pitch or inflection, or any of the standard talents voice actors use when fulfilling multiple roles. Just the same voice for every character.

I’d imagine a viewer would find that both difficult to keep track of and outright annoying, wouldn’t you?

See, even if this was done at an absolute peak, or in other words the performance of this one actor doing all the lines in one voice was its absolute best, it’d still make the film a frustrating experience. Imagine the extra work you’d have to do to keep track of each character. To try and determine who was speaking what line at what point.

It could get even worse. Imagine if it was a complicated, intricate plot with multiple characters interacting with one another in rapid fashion, on and off-camera? How long would it take you to lose track of who said what?

Well, thankfully it’s rare to find a film or show that makes this mistake. Voice actors are talented people, with a wide array of emotions, tones, verbal tics, accents, and other unique vocal identifiers they can use to give each of the characters they play a voice distinct from any other.

Unfortunately, this same sort of care doesn’t always extend to books. Which is where today’s topic finally catches up with the writing we know and love (or at least are interested in, I assume, based on your having gotten this far).

See, it’s easy to say in a visual medium that a character’s voice isn’t distinct enough from another. Listening for distinctions like that is what we do every day, after all, in normal conversation.

But reading differences in character voice? Or writing them? Well … that can be trickier. As evidenced by the number of books that run afoul of this issue. Sands, three weeks ago I struggled through a not-that-great title that was a textbook example of this problem. It had eight primary cast members, and every single one of them had the exact same voice. No matter which of them was speaking, each “sounded” exactly like the other, leading to a scenario where the only way to identify any difference between them being the name at the other end of the said tag, or on the odd chance that they talked about their specific character trait (they each had one).

Okay, let me back up before I get too far ahead of myself and lose some of you. The point here being that different characters have different voices, and even though our writing may not have actual spoken parts, the writing of each of our characters should be distinct enough that the reader can tell who is who without a voice actor backing up those roles.

Sound tricky? Or maybe even impossible? Well, no. To the latter, at least. The former can be true enough depending on your skill level. Some writers slip into it naturally, while others take time and effort.

But what we’re talking about here is some of the stuff you might remember from a speech class. Diction: The choice of words and phrases used by a person or persons when speaking. Verbal tics, phrases, colloquialisms,  the whole nine yards. And all of these have to come across in text rather than aloud. Because we don’t have voice actors. We have our readers. And they need to see the differences in how one character speaks over another.

Okay, so how do we do that? Phonetic writing? Really obvious accents?

Nothing so obvious or prone to abuse. No, go back to the very definition of diction given above. Diction is the choice of words and phrases used by a person. We can expand it further to also encompass the way we structure our sentences for each character as well. After all, this is something each of us does in real life, albeit subconsciously.

Honestly, that’s just a complicated way of saying that different characters will express the same ideas, thoughts, or emotions in different language or words. Each one of them will have their own “style” of expressing themselves that the reader will quickly learn to identify with their character. So, for example, with a book that has the characters of both Jacob Rocke and Hawke Decroux, even if a name isn’t given when the two speak, the reader should be able to keep track of who is speaking by how they speak. There should be subtle differences between the way the pair phrase questions, comments, or speak in general. Word choice, the urgency with which they say it, the shortness (or length) of how they express ideas … to start, really. There are a lot of ways to get this across.

For example, the character of Dawn in my Dusk Guard series sees herself as a refined individual (and to be fair, is), so she’s often very clear in her communication, using proper terminology and speaking in a way that lets the reader know every word is considered carefully. Even when she’s in a rush, she doesn’t drop proper terminology or use slang or colloquial phrases the way other characters would. Thus, when she interacts with other characters, there’s a clear sense that her dialog is, well, hers.

Want more examples of this? Think of characters from books that you’ve known and loved, then actually flip those books open and take a look at their dialogue compared to that of other characters. What are the differences in how they speak, how they make themselves known? Are they always dropping a type of slang? Cocky? Curt? Long-winded? Specific? Vague?

These might seem like small details to be concerned with, but they’re quite vital. Character dialogue and interaction is going to take up a large chunk of almost any book. And if our characters aren’t distinct or unique at their most basic level—simply talking to one another—how can we expect the audience to identify with them or keep them distinct in their mind?

That was the issue that plagued every character in the book I read a few weeks ago. Without anything but stated differences between each character, and no dialogue differences, each of them blended into the other other to a degree that they all felt like one character playing all the roles. Well, role, really. Because none of the characters felt distinct outside of the occasional direct reminder that these were supposed to be different characters.

Another way to look at it is that there was no show when it came to who each of these characters was. Only tell. The text would tell the reader that they were experiencing a certain character … but none of the dialogue actually showed that character in any way.

Now, a word of warning before we end: Don’t make the mistake of trying to make a character’s dialogue too distinct. That’s how you end up with characters that are too hip, or walled into their own little stereotypes. Think of distinct dialogue like salt in a recipe. None at all leads to a nearly flavorless experience. Too much is gross and unappealing. But the right amount serves to highlight other flavors and bring subtle, distinct tones and tastes to light.

So practice. If you’re at all worried that your characters don’t have that distinct voice that tells the reader who they are, practice. Look at dialogue from characters you love, then imagine how the characters that you’ve created would talk if you were speaking to them. Then let that flow into their dialogue when you write.

The result? Well, it may take some work. But you’ll have laid one more stone in the foundation that builds characters readers will remember and love for years to come.

Good luck. Now get writing.


Also, if you’ve enjoyed this week’s post of Being a Better Writer or any of its fellows, please consider supporting the author and helping keep the site ad-free by buying a book or become a Patreon Supporter!

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