Writing Voice: Or, “Help, I Can’t Tell Which Character is Speaking Right Now!”

OK, so you’re a writer. Or at least I assume you are if you’re reading this. If not, thanks for coming back after my last post. Have another elephant.

Originally posted by gifsboom

Hey, you never know, someone might come for the elephants, stay for the rambling about writing.

ANYWAY.

Some new writers, myself included, struggle from time to time with a common problem getting started; everybody sounds almost exactly the same when you read their dialogue. It turns out just writing a bunch of characters is not sufficient to make them all stand out to your readers. One of the most important things to learn as a writer is how to bring out the unique voice of each character.

This can be trickier than it sounds, even if you’ve been doing it for a while. One of the various reasons one of the first drafts of the science fiction novel I’ve been working on for the last four years was discarded to start from scratch was because some 50,000 words in I realized I’d written a story I liked with three viewpoint characters that all sounded very, very similar when I read their words out loud. Without “X said” and “Y replied”, a reader was going to get lost following who was speaking in a fast-paced conversation, and that’s no good.

I am generally described as a quiet, polite, and rational person who tends to be a tad over-verbose when I find something I want to talk about. Can you guess what voice my characters default to if I’m not watching myself carefully?

Even after a lot of practice, I still fall into this from time to time. It’s particularly difficult when writing characters who view the world in a very different way than you do; more than once, I have written with the intent of making an intense, emotion-driven scene in which people act irrationally and the situation spirals out of control…only to look back at it five minutes later to realize I wrote a hyper-rational, detailed thought process for what caused the scene that not only fails to carry the character’s voice but actively contradicts what I was attempting to convey. Editing that was very embarrassing, but prompted my thoughts towards what I should learn from the experience, and what is all this for if not passing on things I’ve learned and thought about while writing?

Something I highly recommend is to try and figure out what your character is like before you start writing their dialogue. While a character will often start to reveal more about themselves the more you write them, it is often invaluable to have your own ideas before you dive in and start writing them. Try to imagine what they sound like in your head, and adjust your writing to try and capture that. Consider some of the adjectives you’d use to describe what a character is like; are they eloquent and polite, or is their manner terse and informal? Are they smarmy and dishonest, using soft words and qualifiers to try and hide their true meaning behind empty noise? Are they uneducated, using the wrong words and poor grammar, or frequently running into situations where their limited vocabulary needs to stretch, sometimes unsuccessfully? Background, personality, and situation can all be huge factors in how people talk and think, and the same holds true for your characters. Someone that normally has a very indirect, flowery manner of speech might become blunt and to the point when under pressure, for example, but this shift in voice in response to stress won’t have nearly as much impact for your readers if they don’t already associate this character with flowery, indirect dialogue.

The trick in all of this is to create varied voices so your reader can tell all of your characters apart without much trouble when you’re writing their thoughts and words. Everybody loves the snarky smartass with a vast array of quips, but ifeveryone displays a deep well of sarcasm and reacts to things with witty remarks, character voices start to blend together, particularly if the witticisms being traded all sound like they’re being drawn from the same book. Contrasts often make for much more distinct, easily identified voices. An understated and wry voice can contrast magnificently against an earnest, bombastic one, and a great many books exist to show the fun writers can have writing a serious, blunt voice against a silly, eloquent one. Even if your characters share traits in common that would inform their voice in similar ways, variance helps them shine; two cynical, taciturn characters can still have very different ways of expressing themselves, different senses of humor (or lack thereof), and different ways of processing information and showing or hiding their emotions.

Well, that’s the theory, but how about putting it into practice? As it turns out, like most of the things you’ve gotta do when writing, the only way to get better at it is to write a lot so you can gain experience with how to identify and properly draw out a character’s voice. That’s fairly vague and unhelpful, however, so let’s get into some SPECIFICS for how to turn theory into practice.

1. Short stories and “journals” from the perspective of characters you want to develop a voice for. Try to do some writing drills where you’re seeing things through their eyes. What are they thinking about, and how do they feel about it? What kind of words do they put their thoughts and feelings in? Is there any particular priority given to reason or emotion in reacting to things? What, ultimately, does this person SOUND LIKE inside their head or when speaking to others? Play around with particular turns of phrase, verbal tics, and what sort of tone and sentence structure is typical or atypical for that particular character. Get inside your characters’ heads, figure out what’s going on in there and what it sounds like. Does it sound like you want people to imagine them when you read what they say or think out loud?

2. Study authors you like who demonstrate strong character voices. I often find it helpful to look at writers like Terry Pratchett and Patrick Rothfuss for this, as Mr. Rothfuss in particular is good at crafting a very unique way of speaking and thinking for a number of his characters. (See The Slow Regard Of Silent Thingsfor a short, beautiful story that conveys this far better than I can.) Observe your favorite authors, and how they convey differing voices for each character. What do they do well, in your opinion? Play with that in your own writing, and try to make it your own.

3. Sometimes a complete shock to the system can help knock loose new voices in your head; unlike 99% of the population, hearing voices that are not your own inside of your head is a GOOD thing as a writer. Start a new project. Conjure up somebody you’ve never written before and try to work out what they sound like. Sometimes starting something entirely new, short-term or long-term, can help you come to new realizations or ideas for how to make a character who’s just not cooperating work when you get back to your original project.

4. Fan fiction and role-play are not exactly the tools most professionals cite when explaining their process, but all writing is practice, no matter what anyone tells you. This may seem like an amusing way to kill time, but you can also make it work for you as practice. If you’re trying to write about or play the role of an existing character, something you’ll need to do to be considered much good is capture that character’s voice. This can be an interesting follow-up on #2; now that you’ve observed how your favorite author tries to convey the voice of these characters you like, are you able to do the same on your own? It can be a useful exercise, as unlike unique characters you’re calling up on the spot, you’re trying to echo a voice you already have on hand to compare against. If you figure out how to convey the voice of an existing character, you can learn a lot about what works for strengthening the voice of the new ones you create.

To conclude simply, your characters will, 99% of the time, be the thing that makes or breaks your story, and the thing that most of your readers are going to find most memorable about your characters is the voice you gave each one. Indistinct, similar-sounding characters will not cling to the memory nearly so well as one written with a strong, clear, distinct voice. Watch yourself constantly as you write, and try to hear each character in your head when you give them something to say. With a little practice, you’ll start to learn how to make them all sound as unique on paper as they do in your head!

Good luck, and happy writing!

Elias Brook is Available for Purchase! Paperback or Kindle on Amazon

Very exciting to announce that my first novel Elias Brook is available now on Amazon.com in paperback or kindle format. Elias-BrookBookFrontCover6x9lores

http://www.amazon.com/Elias-Brook-Jared-Topalian/dp/0986303909/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?

If you haven’t been following along, the book tells the tale of Elias Brook a thief who is believed to have assassinated the king and sent the country of Yivyn into total chaos. He is blackmailed by a spirit to put his lying cowardly ways aside to try to undo the damage by restoring the kings daughter to the throne.  This uneasy alliance challenges all involved.

Read the sample on Amazon and get a taste for this exciting tale.