How to Create Distinctive Character Voices

Did you ever have those Shakespeare quizzes in high school in which your evil teacher gave you a list of random quotations from the play you were studying and asked you to identify the speaker? I remember being terrified of those quizzes in theory but enjoying them in practice. Not because they were easy (the teacher never chose the obvious lines), but because they showed how the distinctive character voices in each of Shakespeare’s plays. There was a unique brain behind each line, and as long as you knew the general qualities of that character’s mind, you’d be able to pass.

Intimidating as Shakespeare is, I’m going to say it: your goal as a writer should be exactly this. You must write your characters with the expectation that high school students will read your work and be capable of passing a Shakespeare-style quote quiz on your characters.

Why not swing for the fences when creating distinctive character voices?

Too often I feel that, on a first draft, all of my characters are speaking with the same mind (mine). Even though they do things I wouldn’t do, they still explain things like I would, complain like I would, or argue like I would.

Whenever I feel that sinking feeling—it’s happening again, my characters are speaking like me—I stop and do some work to sharpen the lines between my characters.

Some advise to throw in gimmicky things: accents, verbal tics, neologisms, malapropisms. These can help differentiate characters, but they don’t get at the root problem. The real problem isn’t just that the characters don’t sound different enough. The problem is that I don’t know their minds well enough to give them unique dialogue.

Here are some exercises you can do to force yourself to think about the minds behind the characters so you can write their dialogue more confidently:

1. The Sitcom Exercise

Sitcoms are perfect for writing exercises. One of the things I like to do is take a situation from a sitcom and see how each of my characters would react to it. Take this simple scene from I Love Lucy. Lucy is mad at Ricky; Ricky doesn’t care—he just wants his breakfast made. It’s not a particularly funny scene, but it gives us a perfectly simple exercise: how would your character react in this scene? If your character was Lucy what would he/she finally say? If your character was Ricky, how would he/she plead for the spouse to respond?

Think deeply about the mind that produces the words; don’t just grab for a satisfying line of dialogue.

Lucy’s response to Ricky’s “What do you want me to do starve to death?” is “Would you, please?”

Perhaps other characters wouldn’t be so succinct and biting. Maybe they’re the type that draw it out: “Insofar as starving to death is a long, painful process that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy—yes. I’d like you to starve to death.”

This tells me a lot about the mind that thinks this through, and I’ll remember that mind when writing further dialogue for that character.

Use Lucy’s situation, or pick a favorite sitcom moment and rewrite it with your characters.

2. The Disney World Exercise

Disney World produces a wide variety of responses from the people I know, so I like to use it for building characters as well.

A character steps into Disney World for the first time and is met by all of the customary sights and sounds: costumed characters waving, parades, fireworks, children crying, children laughing, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and so on. What does the character say to the person he/she is with?

I’d imagine that the first words out of the mouths of Pip from Great Expectations, Snape from Harry Potter, and Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada would be incredibly different.

The same should be true for your characters.

3. The Grandparents Exercise

Age all of your characters to the age they would be as grandparents. They have three pieces of advice to offer their grandchildren. What are they?

I have one character who is quite practical, maybe he’d offer:

1. Never shop at a supermarket on an empty stomach.

2. (To a granddaughter) Always assume the toilet seat is up.

3. Buy more underwear than any other piece of clothing. You can go a laundry cycle or two without fresh jeans or sweaters, but not without fresh underwear.

Now that I’ve written this, I know this character’s mind far more clearly.

After cataloguing the responses of my characters to each of these prompts, I can always return for reference. This is particularly useful when I’m choosing which character I want to show responding to a plot point. It may seem like a bit of effort (though it can be fun), but it’s worth nailing this down early on.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever struggled with your characters all sounding the same?

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About L.B. Gale | @lbgale

L.B. Gale received her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she studied literary theory, fantasy and mythology. She currently lives in New York. A good deal of her time is spent blogging about speculative fiction and the fantasy writing process. You can access her blog and find her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I have never thought of writing in this sort of technique. It certainly took me off the platform, and I’m beginning to reevaluate my style of writing and if it’s unique enough. Nevertheless, this is a great idea and I’m definitely going to work on it! Thanks 🙂

  2. Sakina Herron says

    I’m seriously riding the struggle bus even though those are great tips I still have trouble making them sound different. I mean in my head when I use friends their voices sound different in my head which I try to portray on paper but it hardly ever works out right. What am I doing wrong?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Try assigning different types of words to each character. Figure out distinctive vocabularies and speech patterns. For example, a character I just wrote has the tic of ending most of her sentences as questions. It sets her speech apart from the other characters’.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Developing Distinctive Character Voices – An article with three different exercises designed to help you develop distinctive voices for […]

  2. […] need distinctive voices too. From Wordplay, How to Create Distinctive Character Voices has a handful of exercises for experimenting with character voice. (What would J.K. Rowling’s […]

  3. […] 10. Send your character(s) to Disney World and watch their reactions. […]

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