Who Shall I Say Is Calling? Character Voice

Wednesday, January 30, 2019
As I draft my mystery, I’ve had an uncomfortable realization. My characters lack unique voices. While the choir director almost has his own voice, my main character and her two sidekicks sound alike. The other secondary characters blend right in without anyone sounding unique.

How unique do they need to be? You should be able to look at the dialogue from a conversation among characters and know who is speaking even when the tags have been deleted. It should be that obvious. I know this is the sort of thing I can fix in the rewrite but how to fix it has had me worried. Then my son came into my office.

“How am I supposed to know which one of them wrote this?” He had a Facebook message open on his phone. We have friends, Mom, Dad and teen daughter, who share a Facebook account. Answering a question is a lot easier when you know who you are talking to. I glanced at the message. “It’s the teen.”

The reasons that I could tell who it was gave me some ideas regarding how to rewrite my dialogue. A lot of it would be based on studying how real people sound and I could start with this family.

Mom and daughter have a tendency to go on and on. Verbally and in Messenger, their messages are long. Still I can tell at a glance which is which.

Mom is explaining every contingency. There will be no doubt what she wants and what are the possible outcomes based on each response you might make.

The daughter’s messages are just as long but not loaded down with facts like Mom’s. The teen’s messages, even the one to me, are effervescent. You are going to know exactly how she feels and what it is that she’s wildly excited about this very minute. If it is via Messenger, there will be 4 or more emoji. In a row. And none of them are the poop emoji.

Dad’s messages are brief. Five words max.

Other things that I might want to use when shaping a character’s voice include:

Education. A well-educated character is more likely to use what my dad calls ten-dollar words.

Vocation. A doctor may pepper her speech with medical terms while a soldier uses military terminology. Hobbies can influence speech in much the same way with an avid amateur geologist using rock and mineral vocabulary while a gardener refers to plants and earth.

Personality. A confident person will make firm statements. An insecure person may hedge every statement lest they cause offense.

Once I have a draft in hand, with the plot and mystery solidly in place, it will be time to fine tune the dialogue. To do this, I’ll have to take a look at each character and decide how to shape their speech. By the time I’m done, readers should be able to tell the cop from the choir director from the new girl in town.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins March 18th, 2019.


Unknown said...

Couldn't be better timing, Sue! Thank you for the great examples! I was thinking my dynamic duo was indistinguishable in my chapter book manuscript! Thank you for giving me some ideas. Back to the manuscript!

Mary Horner said...

Thank you for the great information, now I need to re-read some of my dialogue and incorporate your suggestions!

Renee Roberson said...

Yes, I remember when you suggested I do this for my horror story and it made all the difference! I need to go back and do this with my current WIP, especially since the protagonist is a male teenager and he should sound a lot different from everyone else!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--You included specific ways to make a character's voice distinctive. I probably need to go back over my dialogue... Ugh. ;)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I'm glad I could help! Now I just have to get busy and draft my ms so that I can give it a helping hand!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I need to do this as well! I have a bunch of college ages guys at the beginning of my memoir and I hope they don't sound the same. I think it's a little easier with memoir because you remember someone saying something a certain way, but getting it right on the page is still a challenge. Thanks for this! :)

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