Distinct character voices

Tanja Bisgaard

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I have gone through my manuscript several times, trying to make sure my two main characters (two children aged 12 and 13) have their own voice. But I am not sure I have succeeded...

Do you have any good tips for how to work with that? I have heard someone say they make a board for each character, and write down a whole lot of dialogue for each of them...

And is it possible to show in every single sentence which one of the characters is speaking?o_O
 

Dan Jones

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I've been told I have a "way with voice" (which sounds like a Yes song or a chop-socky film from the early 70s) by another Chronner of high repute, so I feel I'm at least some way qualified to have an opinion on this.

I don't tend to plan my character's voices at all (and I definitely don't go in for that "my characters speak to me" stuff); I tend to feel them instead. I imagine what type of person they would be, where they're from, what type of person they are, and base the voice around that sort of stuff. Personally I don't use crib sheets for my characters (unless there's a lot of relevant backstory stuff that might get confusing or cause continuity errors otherwise) but if it works for you, go for it. Then write how you think they would sound.

Example. Terse, abrupt types might speak briefly. Dispense with pronouns altogether. Use words sparingly. Like they're constantly in a rush.

On other other hand, if your character is more lugubrious, then they'll be more inclined towards the use of long, flowing sentences smattered with the odd quixotic word and self-indulgent use of metaphors or images.

Some characters swear like bastards, every other bloody word. This might be because they're ****king angry, or are in a very testosterone-driven environment (like the 'kin army, etc), or they're perhaps just ****ing aggressive.

Others'll just, you know, sort of like drop, like, stalling words into their speech, 'cos, you know, they're not so confident and stuff, and they don't like to, like, talk too much. Whatever.

In each of these cases, these characters' imaginary voices (the voices they use to address themselves in their head) will be similar to their oral voice (with some exceptions, see below). So you can start to differentiate.

Having said that, one thing I try to bear in mind is that people think more articulately than they speak. You know that feeling where you're due to talk to somebody about something important, and you plan exactly what you're going to say, and it never comes out like that? I try to capture that in my writing. Dialogue is rarely as articulate as thought. Which is why I think one exception to my rule above would be that people don't use stalling words (like like, you know, sorta, kinda) in their internal speech.

Also, I think it's tempting to be overly formal when trying to capture voice. A lot of writers seem to default to a "proper" writing style with perfect grammar and syntax. The reality is that people rarely, if ever, use this, unless they're the Queen or a world class pedant. This is true for thought patterns, but multiply it many times for speech. Multiply it, like, a zillion times when you're trying capture a 12 and 13 year old.

As for differentiating between the two characters: are they related? Just buddies? What is different about them? Apart from their differences, they are the same age, so it might be they have very similar patterns of speech in some ways.

Hope this is of some help!
 

AnyaKimlin

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I "cast" my main characters with an actor - one with a large YouTube presence and that I can stalk. That allows me to sit and watch them, taking notes about physical quirks and verbal ticks. The other characters tend to fit round the main character fulfilling their need in the story and they interact differently.

Another one is to write the point of view characters from the point of view of different characters because if the voices are distinct they will view that character completely differently eg I have one character who thinks he's handsome and god's gift whereas his dad describes him as resembling a gangly teen (said character is 51) with only four facial expressions: cheeky, I'm in trouble, happy and I'm going to a funeral. They have totally different views of each other.
 

Nick B

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And here's the most useless answer- We don't use sheets, or notes, or even really plan voices. They just are who they are. I know that doesn't help, and to be honest I have no idea how to explain that.
 

RX-79G

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I have gone through my manuscript several times, trying to make sure my two main characters (two children aged 12 and 13) have their own voice.
If the characters are two peers, rather than castaways from different cultures, then you run the risk of losing realism if you make their speech too distinct from each other. Two boys from the same elementary school should speak more alike than different in regular exchanges. The differences will come out in longer, more expressive statements or in who tends to speak confidently more often. Otherwise I think they will sound the same most of the time.

If you are desperate to separate them, given one boy a written lisp or other speech impediment, or a frequent speech pattern of the "um, like" variety. But you risk making that character appear less intelligent, even if that isn't fair to those with speech problems.



Otherwise, you could choose to write the story from the viewpoint of only one boy, and treat his speech as something different than the quotation style of all the other characters. In other words, we would be reading the mental version of his verbalizations, instead of the actual verbalization. So they would be in italics or some other unusual punctuation form:

"How about skipping school?"

>I don't know about that. But I do, and I'm not willing to say so.

"So, maybe not?"

>Yeah; not.

Or use the more conventional:
I replied that I didn't know about that.
 

Cory Swanson

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I hear them as voices in my head. I'm sure they all sound like me to a certain extent. I do, however, have to think about what sort of vocabulary a character would use. How much education have they had, how coarse are they? On edits, I find myself thinking a lot, 'they wouldn't have said that.'
 

Steven Sorrels

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To reiterate what @DG Jones has said above, take the characters' personalities into account when writing voice. If they are the swaggering, sarcastic type, think about someone you know who speaks like that and use it as inspiration. Equally so for the shy, demure types, or the angry brooders, etc. Shape their vocabulary and speech patterns after their moods and quirks. Our voice reflects our own internal monologue, filtered through our verbal education and environment. I find if I'm around people with a certain dialect, I tend to pick up and mirror that manner of speech. Take things like that into account.
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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Thanks so much to all of you! That helps a lot!

I did start my trying to think of their moods and personalities, and then base their dialogue on that. But then I was not sure if that was enough....

And I was happy to read the comment from RX-79G that it might be hard to distinguish the two children. One is a boy and the other a girl - but still around the same age... (I might end up making both of the 12 years old :unsure:)
 
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Tanja Bisgaard

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I "cast" my main characters with an actor - one with a large YouTube presence and that I can stalk. That allows me to sit and watch them, taking notes about physical quirks and verbal ticks. The other characters tend to fit round the main character fulfilling their need in the story and they interact differently.

Another one is to write the point of view characters from the point of view of different characters because if the voices are distinct they will view that character completely differently eg I have one character who thinks he's handsome and god's gift whereas his dad describes him as resembling a gangly teen (said character is 51) with only four facial expressions: cheeky, I'm in trouble, happy and I'm going to a funeral. They have totally different views of each other.

That is a great idea!
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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And here's the most useless answer- We don't use sheets, or notes, or even really plan voices. They just are who they are. I know that doesn't help, and to be honest I have no idea how to explain that.
:) Maybe because there are two of you writing? As long as it works for you - wish I were in your shoes!!
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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I hear them as voices in my head. I'm sure they all sound like me to a certain extent. I do, however, have to think about what sort of vocabulary a character would use. How much education have they had, how coarse are they? On edits, I find myself thinking a lot, 'they wouldn't have said that.'
Yeah - that happended to me too. I was lucky enough to have a beta reader say to me - come on, children don't speak like that! And when I read the entire manuscript again, I saw what she meant... But even after going through everything again, I am still worried if I managed. But now I will try my luck with a publisher in Denmark, and see what they say!
 

HareBrain

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If the characters are two peers, rather than castaways from different cultures, then you run the risk of losing realism if you make their speech too distinct from each other

I think it's a risk even if they're not exactly peers, if you try too hard. It's an oft-heard maxim that with each line of dialogue the speaking character should be identifiable even without tags, but I think that's wrong. If you try to make them so, you risk it seeming forced.

And here's the most useless answer- We don't use sheets, or notes, or even really plan voices. They just are who they are. I know that doesn't help, and to be honest I have no idea how to explain that.

That's kind of me too. I don't know how I do it, or even if I do it enough. But I know I do it sometimes because occasionally I swap who's speaking a line of dialogue, and then I have to tweak it till it feels right.
 

VinceK

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Children have a great capacity for mimicking. There may be television programs, games or books that have popular characters and catch phrases. Also a child likes nothing better than to be viewed as a 'grown-up', so may use 'grown-up' words incorrectly or out of context. If your two characters are from the same town, go to the same school and a similar social background it is going to be difficult to differentiate them unless one of them has a speech impediment. At their age they will have a fairly limited view of the world and would probably not want to appear too different, while at the same time dreaming of being a super hero.
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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I think it's a risk even if they're not exactly peers, if you try too hard. It's an oft-heard maxim that with each line of dialogue the speaking character should be identifiable even without tags, but I think that's wrong. If you try to make them so, you risk it seeming forced.

That's kind of me too. I don't know how I do it, or even if I do it enough. But I know I do it sometimes because occasionally I swap who's speaking a line of dialogue, and then I have to tweak it till it feels right.
Very happy to hear that there are different ways of approaching this - that all seem to work (y)
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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Children have a great capacity for mimicking. There may be television programs, games or books that have popular characters and catch phrases. Also a child likes nothing better than to be viewed as a 'grown-up', so may use 'grown-up' words incorrectly or out of context. If your two characters are from the same town, go to the same school and a similar social background it is going to be difficult to differentiate them unless one of them has a speech impediment. At their age they will have a fairly limited view of the world and would probably not want to appear too different, while at the same time dreaming of being a super hero.
The children are actually from different schools/places... At the same time, I do not want to use slang - at the risk of it being outdated in a few years :eek:
 

The Storyteller

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I think it might be a good starting place to compare their personalities. What they like and don't like, what's important to them, how intelligent they are, their lifestyles and home situations, their characteristics, etc. The more you understand their personalities, the more their dialogue will fit who they are, and the more their voice will be 'distinctive'. I wouldn't stress about making every sentence 'identifiable', as this is likely to come off as gimmicky. There are exceptions, as I think some characters are bizarre and unique enough that their voice will be obvious in any circumstance, but for most 'normal' people, there will be situations were individual voice is not likely to show (for example, two characters discussing where they want to eat; its unlikely every line will stand out as this character or that character).

Personally, I find my characters' voices show through without a lot of effort, but that there are certain ways I tend to talk or think that bleed through onto all of them. For example, I've begun to notice words or phrases I use in nearly all my dialogue, because it is the way I would speak, but it is not necessarily the way all my characters would speak. I also recently noticed in my WIP that two characters address the MC in very similar fashions, and while it is very in character for one, it isn't really necessary for the other. By editing it so only the one character addresses the MC in this manner, it strengthens both of the characters' voices. If you are able to spot these sorts of things, it might help you make the voices distinctive!
 

Tanja Bisgaard

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I think it might be a good starting place to compare their personalities. What they like and don't like, what's important to them, how intelligent they are, their lifestyles and home situations, their characteristics, etc. The more you understand their personalities, the more their dialogue will fit who they are, and the more their voice will be 'distinctive'. I wouldn't stress about making every sentence 'identifiable', as this is likely to come off as gimmicky. There are exceptions, as I think some characters are bizarre and unique enough that their voice will be obvious in any circumstance, but for most 'normal' people, there will be situations were individual voice is not likely to show (for example, two characters discussing where they want to eat; its unlikely every line will stand out as this character or that character).

Yes - that is where I started - so happy to hear that was not a bad approach.

Personally, I find my characters' voices show through without a lot of effort, but that there are certain ways I tend to talk or think that bleed through onto all of them. For example, I've begun to notice words or phrases I use in nearly all my dialogue, because it is the way I would speak, but it is not necessarily the way all my characters would speak. I also recently noticed in my WIP that two characters address the MC in very similar fashions, and while it is very in character for one, it isn't really necessary for the other. By editing it so only the one character addresses the MC in this manner, it strengthens both of the characters' voices. If you are able to spot these sorts of things, it might help you make the voices distinctive!

And I also found that I changed a lot during my review process - I was wondering if an experienced author would manage to do that right first time round, and not have to spend time editing afterwards...
 

hopewrites

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For authenticity you could sit in a youth chat room.

I agree that the slang will all shift and wander off in any number of years, but sitting in the chat room will recall your own youth to you, show how these young humans are not so different than the young humans of your own generation, and after a time give you a grasp on how to authentically express what your disseperate characters are thinking and feeling.


I remember when I was that age, that some of us got that other people don't think and/or feel and/or perceive the world as our innerselves did. Those of us who did were better at communicating to those outside our heads than those who didn't get it.

I love Anna's suggestion for writing what goes on from one perspective, then from the other. You might not use either perspective, because the narrator has the best view, but you'll know if the dialogue is right because the characters will have naturally said what they say when given their own perspective on a scene.

Acting it out would be the shorthand version of such a suggestion. (Shorthand because you don't have to stop and write everything out, nor do it twice.)

Awesome question, thanks for asking.
 

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