Being a Better Writer: Keeping Character Voice Consistent

Welcome back readers! I hope you all had a decently uplifting weekend? I spent mine largely asleep, fighting off a bug that thankfully did not show a large amount of signs of being Covid (but kept me indoors anyways because I was asleep and hey, just in case). In any case, I hope your weekends were a bit more lively and/or successful.

Now, after a week’s break, I’m sure some of you were wondering what sort of topic we’d be covering upon returning once more. Well, today you find out that answer. Combing over the new list (which is, admittedly, still being built) for a topic today, the one I’ve chosen is … Well, you can see the title a bit.

I’m sure some of you are wondering why I picked this topic, and, well … It has to do with something I saw someone else speaking out over the last few weeks. It was a few weeks ago, but I ran into an online discussion where character voice consistency (and a lack of it) were being discussed at length. Then again just this last weekend during the LTUE Mini-con (Did you attend? How was it?) the topic came up again, this time in a small discussion about editing and this being something to watch for.

So yeah, when I looked down at the list again this morning, this seemed like a solid topic to choose for the first reappearance after such a lengthy, one-week break.

Enough background. Let’s get down to it. Let’s talk about keeping our characters’ voices consistent.

Actually, before we talk about the “consistency” part let’s talk about what character voice is. No sense in filling folks in on how and why to keep it consistent if they’re not sure what it is.

I’d like to start this process with a question: Have any of you ever traveled to a different part of the country you live in, maybe to visit relatives or someone, and noted that people talk a little differently there? I’m not talking about speaking different languages (that’s pretty obvious), but say if you go from the east side of the US to the west side. If you lived in one for several years and then shifted back to the other, you would find that each “region” on those coastlines had particular ways of speaking.

To those of you in the US, this is usually thought of as a “regional accent.” This can encompass everything from regional sayings and colloquialisms (Well bless her heart!) to uses of specific words to refer to something (a shopping cart on the west coast is a carriage in the northeast, for example) or just local ways of saying things (the jet, y’all).

Those of you outside the US probably refer to it as something similar, as this is by no means confined to the United States. Every country has this. If you go to Australia, you’ll find differences in dialect and speaking if you travel north to south, or from coastal to the bush. If you go to … oh … French Polynesia, you’ll find differences there too, even down to the individual towns (though the closer you look, the smaller the differences usually become).

This is just how language operates. No matter the scale, clumps of people will pick up small differences in the words they use, the “rules” of social conduct they follow while speaking, even how words are said. And this extends right down to the family and individual level.

Each one of us, no matter what, has a unique mannerism and style of speaking. It may not be incredibly different from others around us. But we have it. It’s just who people are. We pick up our own inflections with words, our own phrases or particular parlances of speaking. Basically if you wanted to chart the breakdown, you really could make a map that went like this:

Regional Language (IE Spanish) -> Regional Dialects -> Area Dialects -> Town or City Dialects -> Family Dialects -> Individual Dialect

Maps for things like regional dialects do exist, and whole divisions of researchers have made it their life’s work to study language in this manner (which means studying people along with it).

Okay, this is all interesting (maybe even fascinating), but some of you might be wondering “Okay, now what does this have to do with my characters? Do I need to give them a regional accent?

Well yes, you should. But that’s not all I’m trying to get at here (again, title). Yes, your character should have a regional accent of some kind. We all do, whether or not we realize it (since we’re immersed in it, it’s like not knowing that we’re breathing air as kids until someone informs us that this is what we’re doing). But that isn’t all your character (or characters) should have.

Your characters should have a sense of them to their speaking. I’m not talking about colloquialisms or slang—though this can help—but a rhythm, a cadence, that marks their speech as their own. It can be word choice, it can be brevity (or length), or any combination of any number of different approaches that make someone’s speech unique.

Ideally, as I’ve heard many say it, you want your characters’ voices to be distinct enough that if two of them are talking and you don’t include any dialogue tags denoting who is saying what, most readers will still be able to pick out who was speaking with each line. Now obviously this won’t be completely clear all the time (especially with two characters that speak in similar manners, such as family members might) but most of the time, if your character has a distinct way of speaking, it should be clear in their dialogue.

They should have their “regional” accent (whatever region that is). They should have their phrases of exclamation, curses or otherwise. They should have their parlance, the types of words they use on a regular basis.

But this also can go further, and here is where we start moving into the actual thrust of our title and topic: They should also be consistent in how they use their voice.

Confused? Thankfully I’ve got a direct example I can offer you, straight from my most recent project: Axtara – Banking and Finance.

See, the titular Axtara has a very unique voice. In fact, most of the first comments I got from readers when the book started to go through editing was on her unique, formal manner of speaking. For example, here’s one of her earliest lines of dialogue from the book:

“Mother … If we’re counting me, then it’s practically full. You can’t even fit in here with me.”

There’s an element of precision with how she speaks. Granted it is a bit hard to get a feel for her with just this one line, but her choice of words like ‘practically’ or her drawn out explanation (someone else just would have said “No, it’s too small”) are marks of who Axtara is.

Keeping that element of her voice whenever she spoke through the book was a vital part of keeping her character consistent through voice. And at last we’re right on line with today’s topic.

But you know me. I never stop there. Sure, we know what character voice is, now. And we know that keeping it consistent means making sure that it stays true to what’s been established over the book. But is that all there is to it?

No. And this is where things get fun.

First of all, there’s the act of knowing how to keep your dialogue consistent throughout a book. For some of you, this might be easy and come second nature. For others … not so much. In fact, you can hire an editor to focus on this sort of thing and check your work. And the same tools that will help that editor know what they’re looking for can help you give them a little less work.

A character sheet. A style guide. A piece of paper on your desk reminding you of the highlights. Something you can look at that will remind you of the details of how a character tends to talk.

A reminder that can catch your focus and make you think “Oh yeah, they talk like this!” as you write so that you can keep that voice alive and well over the course of your work. This reminder can also be passed on to your editing crew, be they Alphas or an editor you’ve hired for the specific purpose of hunting down consistent voice.

But that isn’t all there is to this. Maybe for a baseline. If we want to have a simplified character that doesn’t quite have the depth of reality. But we never want that. No, we want characters that live. And so I present to you, readers, the second step of keeping a character consistent. Starting with a question.

How do you speak with a friend when you’re out having fun? This can be online, in person, whatever. How do you talk with them?

Now think about how you speak with your boss. Or your parents. Someone on a different “end” of your social spectrum. Do you choose different words? Speak quicker or slower? Does your tone change?

This isn’t inconsistency, but rather consistency with how you react to the world around you. Likewise, giving your character a consistent voice is powerful, but then letting that voice react in a consistent manner to the world and environment around it is polishing that power like a fine-cut gem.

Referring once more to Axtara (hey, it’s on my mind), this actually comes up when a character calls the protagonist out on it, having observed that there’s a slight difference to the way the protagonist speaks when speaking with those she pays respect to and those she’s relaxed around. Furthermore, it’s a difference readers can see in the text of the protagonist’s dialogue. Axtara does speak differently throughout the book, always maintaining her unique voice but tweaking it slightly based on who she’s speaking with. Nobility (as this is a 16th-17th century-analogue fantasy) tends to make her words very formal but flowery, with more complex words. Clients (she’s a banker) make her precise and detailed, with explanations and a willingness to teach. And with those she’s relaxed around, the formality drops away, and she uses contractions and more relaxed verbiage more often.

Point is, a consistent voice will be one that reacts and adjusts to the characters and situation at hand. Just as each and every person reading this post would change up their tone, word-choice, and speed based on who they were speaking to while still settling inside their established voice, so too will each character you write.

But it’s a flex, not a full change (unless, of course, your character is aware enough that they can carry that out). There should still be obvious qualities left, no matter who they’re speaking with, that mark the voice as the character’s own.

Now, there’s one more thing I want to talk about with regards to keeping character voice consistent before we call an end to this post. We’ve talked about taking notes, or asking editors to keep an eye on a voice. We’ve talked about what voice is, and how it might flex a bit depending on who someone is talking to. But there’s one aspect with all this we haven’t talked about, one that I’ve seen some writers panic over.

Character voices can be similar.

The thing about dialects, from region down to a family? They’re similar. Sure, everyone puts their own spin on them, but should you be worried if you have three characters from the same small town and all three of them sound somewhat close in aspects of their voice?

No. Group people up, and they’ll take on aspects of similarity to one another. That’s not a problem, it’s realism. Even being close but unique is still unique. So if you have some characters that either spend time around one another and pick up colloquialisms or have spent time around one another and have some similarities, don’t worry too much. As long as they don’t sound identical (unless that’s what you’re going for) and a reader can clearly see who says what and attach it to the picture in their mind, you’re good.

And with that, good luck. Now get writing!

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