Workshops for Writers: Character Voice in Dialogue

Character voice is a hard topic to master and practice. A lot of it, I notice, comes down to a couple of different things. One being that most writers can’t seem to tell if their characters sound different. They need someone else to tell them that their characters all sound the same.

And the other is how writers see dialogue. Most use it as a way to relay information to the reader, which leads to stale dialogue and stilted characters. Dialogue and the way characters speak is nothing like how we as real people speak. They speak like actors. All subtext and internal motivation battling with external forces.

So when we think about character voice, we shouldn’t think about it the way we think about our voices. We can’t just write the way real people speak and think the hard work of character voice is done. It’s not.

A character’s voice is how they express themselves. Let’s use that understanding to dissect character voice so that we can in turn use it in our own writing. Designing a character’s voice should be something that pulls greatly from their personal background, personality, and world standing.

Workshop Exercise & Discussion

During the workshop, let’s discuss our ways of crafting character voice, examples of great character voice, where our weak spots are, the resources and techniques shared, and examine a draft of ours to work on the character voice within our story.

Pick a draft of yours (it doesn’t have to be one previously shared) and choose a character. Make a copy and rewrite their dialogue in one scene, concentrating your character’s personality, background, and world(region/accent) into their voice to make it distinct and unique to them. Towards the end of the workshop, we’ll share our stories showing a before and after of the character using the old draft and the new copy.

Ways to Write Character-Specific Dialogue

The thing to remember about all of these techniques is that the purpose is to create character voices that are unique and dialogue that is not stale. But when it comes down to it, it’s up to you as the writer to find a method and system that works for you. Think about your intent and your character’s intent.

Read Scripts

Guess what? Scripts are master classes in dialogue and studying distinctive voice. They are also a great tool to use when it comes to crafting lean stories with a lot of dialogue and action. Find a movie that you enjoy because of how unique and distinct the character’s sound. Search out it’s script online and study how the writer(s) did it.

There are a lot of scripts and transcripts available for free online. Here’s my favorite site to go to for browsing scripts to read. They have movie scripts as current as 2018. It also tells you which draft stage it is and more.

Copy Work

This is a tried and true method when you need to understand how other authors create distinctive character voices. Copy work is rewriting passages and stories in order to learn the feeling of them. Hunter S. Thompson did this a lot to help with his prose.

Find a book or story that you love. Pick a scene that’s heavy in dialogue and has more than one character. Rewrite the scene by hand or type it up. Pay attention to the sentence structure, action framing, and word choice. Try to think about how the character is coming through in the dialogue and the choices the author would have had to make while writing the scene to show that character.

Read Literature from Outside Your Culture

Too often, writers stick to reading and learning from their own culture. It creates a hallow tunnel where nothing new or original can come out. By reading the stories of another culture, writers can learn how to frame and write voice in different ways.

This technique is also great if you are writing characters from outside your culture. Read stories in other languages even if you don’t understand them. Take in the format and grab a few passages to translate. Learn language from native speakers to understand how to concentrate voice and style on the page.

Change the Rhythm

The quickest way to find a character’s voice is to start by writing out what you think they want to say. Then chop it up and change the rhythm so that the flow is different and unique to the character.

Though this method works at making the dialogue look different on the page, it doesn’t connect deeply with the character saying it. So, try and go beyond just chopping and screwing their dialogue by using who your character is to determine how they would chop and screw a sentence.

Dialogue Daisy Wheel

The dialogue daisy is a method created by the Dialogue Doctor. It takes into account the character’s personality, background, and world standing to craft unique character voices. Check out the podcast and video here.

Patois

This is less of a technique and is more of a note about creating or using patois’ in your writing. There is a strong divide between people who think that writing out patois phonetically should be avoided. While others see it as an honest representation of a culture.

Whichever way you choose to write out marginalized characters patois’ should come down to not making them caricatures or stereotypes.

Act it Out

When at a loss for how to find your character’s voices, try acting like your character. Let your image and idea of them embody you. Strut around like them and speak how they would.

Write down what you say or record it so that you can begin thinking about how they respond to the world and other characters.

Figurative or Literal

Like the Charles and Luther example, when it comes to designing your characters’ unique voices, you can make one or more speak either figurative or literal. A main character could fall into long-winded monologues that are teeming with poetry.

Or they can be a short and soft-spoken literal person. Even better, you could blend the two so that you have a soft-spoken poetic character who rarely speaks, but when they do their words are meaningful and sting the scene.

Resources

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