Finding Our Characters’ Voices
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for March:
- Finding Our Characters’ Voices (3/7)
- Developing Our Characters’ Voice (3/16)
- Dialogue as Exposition (3/21)
- Inner Voice (3/28)
How do you find your characters’ voices? Many writers I work with say they don’t. Their characters speak for themselves naturally. But I’m betting you can guess that these writers’ characters don’t speak in distinct and engaging ways. You’re right. Writer Charlie Jane Anders once said, “The unexamined story isn’t worth telling.” And I feel this way about dialogue. The plain simple speak of characters whose voices blend in with the story around them, add nothing to the telling and leave the characters feeling shallow.
“Jerry waved. ‘Hey, how are you?’
Martin replied, ‘Fine and you?’
Jerry said, ‘Okay. I’m wondering if you have a moment to talk?'”
Those lines are almost indistinguishable from so many dialogue exchanges in stories where the writer didn’t spend time finding their characters’ voices. A writer who’s taken the time to find each of their characters’ voices is able to blend them together to create an engaging exchange of distinct voices.
“Jerry waved, pushing past all pleasantries. ‘We need to talk.’
Martin mumbled under his breath, ‘Says who?'”
While the first example is a common exchange in real life, it falls dead on the page. The second one shows more character and pulls the reader into the story. There are many ways we as writers can find our characters’ voices. We’ll each find one more fruitful than the other. The important aspect is that we search for our characters’ voices instead of letting them tumble out unexamined or unedited.
“Pull!” I shouted to my shipmates. We reeled in as hard as we could, snatching the beast, a young one I could tell now that we had him close.
He didn’t thrash, just remained calm, belly up on the net.
-Less of fin bite your tooth of long through my sk—
“Bring him in,” I said quietly, not wanting to disturb him. “Easy, easy.”
Let’s get into it more below!
While there are tons of ways of discovering your characters’ voices, the basic idea behind all of them comes down to one thing: figuring out how your characters speak in a variety of situations related to who they are, where they’re from, and who they are speaking to. Think about it. Do you talk the same to every one you speak to? What about characters in your favorite books? Do their voices stay static throughout the whole story?
The books and characters I love range in their emotions and use of dialogue. Sometimes characters use their voices to manipulate other characters or even themselves. Other times dialogue is used to convey important story details to both the characters and readers. As the character grows and changes and experiences the story you’ve weaved, their voice grows and changes too. Not just how they speak but what they say.
To get to that level of distinct and engaging dialogue, examine your characters from various angles. Does your character happen to use a type of slang specific to their region, culture, or social group? How does their voice change as they grow emotional, angry, sad, flirtatious? Most writers don’t explore these aspects of their character’s voice so leave their characters lost and indistinct on the page.
If you’ve got a draft and you’re struggling to figure out how to make your characters sound distinct, you’re most likely facing the issue of unexamined dialogue. You wrote what was in your head and didn’t morph and shape it around who your characters are. Worse yet, you never figured out who your characters are within your story.
To make your characters’ voices unique and distinct, you need to make your characters’ inner and outer worlds have depth. Without exploring our character’s place in the world and how it influences their interactions, we leave our characters sounding flat and distinct.
Take a current or recent WIP and identify how all your major characters talk in these types of situations:
- Arguing with family
- Arguing with friends
- Meeting new people
- Speaking with authority figures
- Normal everyday situations
- Speaking with someone they’re attracted to
- Lying to someone they care about
Dig deep into describing exactly how they speak during these situations. Maybe when speaking with someone they’re attracted to they laugh a lot and talk in long run-on sentences. Or they don’t talk at all and just nod or stare. Imagine your characters, one by one, in these different situations and paint a picture of their full voice, pushing past the generic and unexamined.
When you’re at a lost, look at your favorite stories and how characters’ voices change in various situations.
- Showing Character Growth in Dialogue
- Creative Tricks to Find Your Characters Voice
- The Dialogue Daisy
- How to Define Your Character’s Unique Voice
- 12 Questions to Develop the Voice of Your Characters
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from February:
- Indirect and Direct Characterization (2/7)
- Character Action (2/16)
- Interior World of Characters (2/21)
- Physically Describing Our Characters (2/28)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on describing your characters or how you use it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on developing our characters’ voices.