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Saturday, September 28, 2013

What Else You Need to Know Most About Character Voice

Here's part 2 of my article on character voice. In part 1(you can read it here) I came up with this formula:

What the Character Thinks or Talks about + How She Says it = Voice

And I discussed the first portion of it, using Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings as examples. They often choose to talk about food and rarely talk about battle tactics. Also note, that what your character chooses to say in a given situation often reveals what he's thinking about in that moment. Today I'll explore the next part.

How Your Character Talks

Education, culture, experience, interests, and social circles factor in to how your character delivers his lines. Consider speech patterns and word choice as well. 

Back to my examples of the nutritionist, the fashionista, and the dentist from last time. Their interests influence how they speak. They will have a wider range of vocabulary for dieting, clothes, and teeth. The fashionista, for example, probably wouldn't say, "she's wearing a blue shirt." She'd say, "she's wearing a teal tunic with lace along the hem, Swarovski drop earrings, and she's carrying a patent leather Coach purse in coral."

Listen to how the Hobbits talk:

"It's like the great stories, Mr. Frodo. . .Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. . . . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something." --Samwise Gamgee

Notice words like "Mr. Frodo," and "Folk," help establish Sam's voice. Pretend, instead, Gandalf said this. The words and speech patterns would be different. Instead of "lots of chances" he might say "many opportunities." He might pause in different places and use different sentence structures. He's far more educated and experienced than Sam, so he'd say those same thoughts in a different way.

Then think how Gollum would say those thoughts. . . oh, wait, he wouldn't say those thoughts. Gollum doesn't think like that. That's voice too.

In my story, I have one character who has the tendency to sound annoyed and irritable, even when she doesn't mean to. One of her weaknesses is that, she can't communicate her true feelings very well.

When someone she likes shows up at one of her events, she says, "I didn't know you were going to be here."

A character with a more polite voice might say, "Jason, thanks for coming. I know you're really busy. How's your son doing?" (By contrast, my character would never say that).

Another guy might say, "Yo, Jace, what yuh doin' here dawg?"

Here are some other reactions:

  • "It's about time you showed up to one of these things," she teased.
  • "I didn't think you cared about these events."
  • "You finally came!" She gasped, " . . .Looking like that?"
  • "You finally came and you look like that."
  • "Did your mother guilt you into coming?"
  • Silence.
  • "What the heck?"
  • "Jason, I'm flattered you came."
  • "Jason," she said. "You came. I'm flattered."

Look at the last two examples again. Same words, different delivery. Putting the dialogue tag after "Jason," adds a pause to the character's speech, which can communicate shock over Jason himself. Whereas, the former version sounds more relaxed.

More to Consider with Voice

Voice may or may not include slang or an accent. I used to associate voice with dialogue like this: "'Ey 'Arry, 'ow yuh doin'?" or "Did you see that shuck-faced pile of klunk?" Some characters have that as part of their voice. But that isn't the sum of voice.

Also, voices may overlap. I've heard so much talk about how each character should have his own distinct voice. That's true, to an extent. It doesn't mean every character has to talk so different from one another that after you've created six characters, you're creating whacky, awkward sentence structures.

While Sam says "Folk," Gandalf, also says "Folk" at times. It's okay if you have a line of dialogue that could work for several characters. We all ask "How are you?" Some characters have similar backgrounds, so they might talk in similar ways. Voices need to be distinct enough from one another, but don't try so hard to differentiate dialogue delivery that you take it to an extreme. Remember, voice is more than how a character talks. You can make voices different by what your character talks about.

Voice is more than being snarky. Some characters really are sarcastic and snarky, but sometimes I think writers fall back on that voice because they find it easy to write, and they feel like it takes care of that "lack of voice" problem. And then we end up with characters that sound the same. And yet, even with snark, there are different kinds, approaches, and levels. You can still make your character's snark his snark. But don't rely on snark to appear like you've got voice figured out. Dig deeper.

Some characters have favorite words or phrases. Haymitch in The Hunger Games calls everyone "Sweetheart." Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean says "Savvy" a lot. Smeagol says "Precious." People love these favorite words. You might want to give your characters some too. Be careful not give too many characters favorite words, or to have your character overuse them so much they lose effect. But a sprinkle here and there can be great.

In some cases, other characters, especially if the language they are speaking isn't their native tongue, might have odd speech patterns or word phrases (from trying to speak the "dictionary" way). Listen to Yoda's speech patterns, "Mourn them not. Miss them not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is."

In Conclusion

What the Character Thinks or Talks about + How She Says it = Voice

But voice is even more than that. In reality, voice should come from the inside out. What your character talks about and how is influence by who he is. 

Any other thoughts on voice?

Thanks to Shallee McArthur's post on voice and David Farland's post on voice to help me get the concept down.

(Listen or watch this writing tip on Youtube)


  1. Good things to think about. I like your measured and simple analysis. There's a podcast I listen to that just had an episode about character voice as well:

  2. Definitely good points--no two people speak/sound the same!

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