A reader named Hannah recently asked:
I love character development, but I’m struggling with giving my characters their own voices. How can I give my characters their own voice? Right now they all talk or sound the way I would, but the characters need to be their own person with their own unique voice.
I have good news for Hannah. Loving character development is an important step toward writing distinct character voices. I know a few tricks that writers use to distinguish one character’s speech from another’s–grammar and syntax, word choice, non-standard spelling, catch-phrases, malapropism. I will address a few of those tricks toward the end of this letter. But those tricks aren’t worth a whole lot unless your dialogue is informed by a key principle:
Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
Hannah says she loves characterization. What, exactly, is characterization? At the risk of over-simplifying, characterization is a matter of understanding (and helping the reader to understand) what a character wants, and how that character interacts with the world. Which is exactly where a character’s distinctive voice comes from. Why does a character say particular things in a particular way? Because he is a unique collection of desires and he has modes of interacting with the world that are distinct from those of any other person. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
Nacho Libre said, “Beneath the clothes, we find the man. And beneath the man, we find his nucleus.” When it comes to a character’s voice, things like grammar and diction and pronunciation are are just the clothes. Beneath those clothes we find the man–that is to say, characterization. I don’t know what the nucleus would be.
Consider the following short skit. (You may want to find a friend to help you act it out:
Linda: Then Ramona waved the lobster right in the waiter’s face and said, “Your best bet is to turn around and pretend you didn’t hear any of this.”
Martha: That sounds like something Ramona would say.
When Martha says, “That sounds like something Ramona would say,” she is commenting on Ramona’s voice. Ramona apparently has such a distinct way of interacting with the world that this exchange with the waiter, which seems odd to you and me, seems about right to somebody who knows Ramona. Notice that there is nothing distinctive about Ramona’s grammar or syntax or diction. She doesn’t use any catch-phrases or mispronounce anything. And yet Ramona’s voice clearly comes through to those who know her.
So to summarize my first and most important guideline for giving distinctive voices to your characters, don’t think of voice as something different from characterization. Voice is simply characterization that comes out of the character’s own mouth. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. When you’re writing dialogue for a character, always ask yourself, What kind of things would a person with this kind of heart say in a situation like this?
Now, here’s a little reminder that you will find helpful both in writing and in everyday life: People almost never say out loud what is actually going on inside them. They have their reasons. The most common, I would guess, is that most people don’t know what’s going on inside them. Another common reason is that a lot of people lie, and for a lot of different reasons: to protect themselves, to protect others, to manipulate a situation, to project a particular image, or perhaps even to hurt people. I could write a whole issue of The Habit on the subject of the different ways people fail to tell the truth about their lives, and the implications for writers. But as regards character voice specifically, let me say two things:
- What would my character say in this situation? is a very different question from What would my character think or feel in this situation?
- The particular ways a given character typically fails to say what he thinks or feels is a key part of that character’s distinctive voice. Does your character bluster? Wheedle? Cringe? Prevaricate? Placate? Utter the closest cliche? These are voice-related questions.
Think outside the quotation marks (again)
In an earlier issue of The Habit I wrote about the ways that dialogue is impacted by the words outside the quotation marks. You mostly control the rhythm and pace of dialogue with the words outside the quotation marks, and pace and rhythm are a huge part of a character’s voice. Also, expression and gesture are a part of voice too. In our short skit above, Ramona menaces a waiter with a lobster. That gesture may not technically count as voice, but you can be sure it bolsters our sense of how Ramona interacts with the world.
Grammar and Syntax
If you are trying to distinguish characters’ voices by way of grammatical differences or differences in sentence structure, my first advice is to dial things way back. The smartest person you know doesn’t typically speak in sentences that are as grammatically complex as the sentences you typically write. Everybody’s spoken grammar is simpler than you think (even if their vocabulary is complex).
At the other end of the spectrum, the least intelligent person you know gets the great majority of his or her grammar right (I recently wrote about this too). A little bad grammar goes a long way in dialogue. Pick two or three of the most common grammar errors, and use them consistently. In my Wilderking stories, the feechiefolk come across as having terrible grammar, but really they only make a few mistakes (and they make them every chance they get):
- The tend to get their helping verbs wrong (I done told you rather than I have told you or I already told you).
- They often confuse the third principal part (simple past tense) with the fourth principal part (past perfect tense) in their verbs (I have ate instead of I have eaten).
- They say aint a lot.
That’s not a full catalogue of the feechies’ grammatical sins, but those three errors account for most of them.
Spelling and Punctuation
Again, a little misspelling and bad punctuation goes a long way. I will misspell an occasional word to show that a character’s pronunciation is off, but I try not to do it much. In The Charlatan’s Boy, the narrator Grady calls Floyd the Perfesser. The feechiefolks’ pronunciation is so goofy that I ended up using a good many misspellings in the Wilderking stories, but it would be a mistake to misspell every word a character pronounces funny. The occasional strategic (and consistent) misspelling reminds the reader that the character talks funny without antagonizing the reader.
If you feel that you must drop the final –g in a character’s –ing words, resist the temptation to use an apostrophe. Fishin is better than fishin‘. And whatever you do, please, please don’t use phonetic spellings like wuz and preshus to show that a speaker is ignorant. The smartest person you know pronounces was as wuz and precious as preshus.
This thing is turning into a novel, so this will be the last thing I say about developing a character’s voice: always be asking yourself what kind of words and phrases a character would use. Big words? Little words? Technical words? Sentimental words? Non-English words? Would your character be more likely to say stomach or belly or tummy? What about figurative language? What similes would come natural to your character?
- A city-dweller might say “She wailed like a police siren.”
- A country boy might be more likely to say “She wailed like a wildcat.”
- An annoyingly erudite perfesser-type might say “She wailed like Queen Dido wailed on her funeral pyre while Aeneas sailed for Italy.
Voice is just character spoken out loud. Out of the fullnes of the heart the mouth speaks.
I really appreciate you making this simple to understand, for us mo iggorent folk! Also, I never realized that people lie, or withhold information or only say what they want you to hear or see about what’s really going on inside of them. That’s a huge help to me! If you ever write that article, please let me know. I’ve always perceived people doing things for reasons that I would, and that perception doesn’t work!!!
This is chock full of great fodder for me to think about and implement. The truth that most people never say what they’re thinking is a huge AHA for me as a writer. As soon as I read it, I knew it to be true, but I hadn’t considered how much it would impact the way I write a character’s conversation. Thank you so much.
I really appreciated this, especially the part about needing only a few grammatical errors in dialogue to make a person sound ignorant.