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.


  1. Great thoughts, L.B.! Thanks so much for sharing with us today!

  2. Thank you. My pleasure!

  3. I enjoyed this post so much! Creating distinctive character voices is definitely something I struggle with, so thank you for the advice (and the Lucy clip! I needed a laugh :)).

  4. I’m glad you found it useful. Not many characters have more distinct voices than Lucy!

  5. Good advice! …especially about the underwear. 😉

  6. Sounds like a helpful tip.

  7. Making all my characters sound unique is where I definitely need help:) Thanks for the tips. I especially like the Grandparents exercise! I’ll have to try it 🙂

  8. Great thoughts. Thanks for the tips.

  9. I do find the grandparents exercise to be more enjoyable than the others, Lorna. Definitely worth doing when you feel like procrastinating–it seems like you’re taking a break but you still get something accomplished.

  10. You’ve nailed one of my greatest weaknesses right on the head. I could make my characters have distinctive actions, attitudes and behaviors.. but they talked alike way too often.

    Thanks for some great tips on improving individual character voices. I shall certainly put some, if not all, into practice. 😀

  11. This was an absolutely delightful post!

    Now my mind will go to Disneyland everytime I need to know how my character will react, haha.

    And OMG Miranda is one of my faves of ALL times! Rock on Meryl Streep!




  12. Great post because I struggle with this all the time. My problem is that I usually discover this problem after my work is complete and I have to correct it during editing. I wish I could write different voices in from the beginning.
    “All right you lot, get off the bus. We’re here. Disneyland. What do you think?”
    “No granny you don’t have to sit next to the smelly vagrant who fins the first body, on the way back. There’s a space next to the Priest who is a secret serial killer. I haven’t seen the woman who was siting next to him since our last stop.”
    “Excuse me, little girl, yes you, the one who solves the murders before the police, don’t wander off; I want to know your first reaction to Disneyland.” I wonder; is rolling her eyes a reaction to Disneyland or to me.

  13. Great post. One of the biggest fears I have as a writer–that my characters all sound the same. I’m told however, that each has separate and distinct voices.

  14. Awesome approach. Too often the thought is to catalog the character’s looks, dress, background, habbits, likes, and dislikes, but not how they react to situations. This should help to round them out better. Thanks for the tips.

  15. Meryl–I do think I could watch an entire movie about Snape and Miranda in Disneyland!

    Christopher–I think part of the point is that sometimes we don’t really know our characters completely until (oddly enough) after we finish. I think it’s normal to go back and tweak this aspect a lot. (Love your samples, by the way!)

    Traci–I think it’s healthy to have fears about the important things. It keeps us focused on what’s necessary.

    KC–Agreed. I especially hate relying on how a character reacts with his/her “eyes” during a conversation. Writers love to write about the smug, angry, sinister, curious look in the character’s eyes. Yet when I speak to people I frequently find their eyes to be the *least* expressive part of the face. Voice is so much more telling.

    Thanks for all the responses everyone!

  16. I have never heard this explained this way and it was very clear. Thanks.

  17. When I wrote the script for my graphic novel Shades, I “cast” an actor or someone I knew in real life as every significant character.

    After I’d finished the first draft of the script, I subjected the whole thing to a major revision, reviewing every single line of dialogue and rewriting each one until I was happy that it sounded the way the relevant actor (or acquaintance!) would actually say it.

    I found that way I was able to give each character an individual and realistic speech pattern, even when the main function the line in question was to elaborate a plot point.

  18. Good advice. I’ve a character who changes from a closed off loner to a more sociable person, so am trying to have his voice evolve. But I should look at all my characters as I edit.
    Wish I had a way to focus only on the dialog of one character at a time. Using Scrivener – maybe there’s a way to hilite and export.

  19. This is one of the hardest things for me! If you ever watch the show Community, they achieve this perfectly. In the Halloween episode, each character told a spooky story. We, the audience saw the stories acted out, so we couldn’t see who was telling each story. But the content of each story and the way it was told made it clear which character’s story it was. No small feat.

    That might be another exercise worth trying. Have each of your characters tell a story, and see if a reader can figure out which character is telling the story.

  20. Definitely something I’m going to try!
    Especially at the start my characters all sound alike!

  21. I’ve been struggling with this myself. Especially the part about how my characters think alike. I’ve given them different speech patterns, but I’m afraid they all still sound like me. The exercises should help tremendously.

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  23. Distinct character voice has been my number one undoing in my writing endeavors. I know it’s a problem but not the solution. This post was extremely helpful and the exercises clarifies exactly what I’ve been struggling with. Thank you!
    Side note: I’ve read two YA series that attempt to switch POVs but the voices sound exactly alike. It’s beyond annoying and I hope to avoid the same blunder. Thanks a bunch!

  24. 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 🙂

  25. 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’.


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