Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do your characters sound different?

I'm keeping this short since I'm throwing it out to you rather than talking about it myself. Are you able to create characters that sound different when they speak? This is something I don't think about very much as I write, and I'm wondering if anyone has any tips.

I'm curious to know:

1. what techniques you use to make your characters sound different and

2. if you, as a reader, are bothered when characters DON'T sound different.


  1. Good question, Davin! I think about this sometimes, but it has never been a big issue for me as a reader or a writer. To me it's no so much the dialogue as it is how each character is presented and written. In MONARCH, for instance, I made sure to give each POV character certain characteristics and focus-points. Devan is constantly thinking about getting free, so many things I use to describe him are in that vein, and this comes out in the dialogue, too, I hope.

  2. I hear them different from one another in my head when I read what I wrote, but I'm not sure that's translating into the written word so well.

    I think it's because I know them so well that I can hear the differences, but I'm not sure how to get those onto the page.

  3. I agree with Michelle: the internal life of the character has to be well-thought out and that will pretty much take care of how they speak. Speech mannerisms are far less important than how well you've realized your characters. I take into consideration level of education and intelligence and a person's social status so that their speech rings true for who they are, but I am not at all interested in trying to make everyone's dialogue unique. Verbal tics and the like are for lazy writers who can't make their characters memorable as people.

  4. This is a huge, huge thing for me. I try very hard to make my characters sound different, sometimes in huge obvious ways and sometimes in more subtle ways.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a trick for it. It's just a matter of hearing them and being able to speak as them. That then gets translated to the written work.

    As a reader, it does bother me, but most writers don't pay much attention to this, or at least don't execute it, so I've learned I can't get hung up on it.

  5. I suppose each of my characters have a certain vocabulary and cadence to their speaking and thought patterns. One may over-use contractions, whereas another articulates more clearly. One uses simple and direct statement, another, more complex sentences. And then there are pet phrases that each tends to use.
    In Story for a Shipwright, I wrote portions in 4 different POV (2 in first person, 2 in third) and they all 'sound' markedly different.

    When I read, I like picking up on even subtle differences in the ‘sound’ of each character, but even when I can’t, it doesn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

  6. Yes, it does bother me if an author's characters sound alike (seems like the author's voice). I try to go back over the words, looking for what style each character has, what quirks of language. One may be wordy, another terse. One may use pet phrases. But the most important aspect is that what they say is reflective of their character. Reading aloud can often point up inconsistencies to me.

  7. I do get annoyed when characters sound the same. Particularly when the characters come from different authors.

    I don't really have system for making my guys and gals sound different.

    It has to do with how they get to appear in my book in the first place. They walk into my thoughts as fully formed people that I have to get to know. So how they speak, act and think are things that are part of them, which makes each 'voice' unique.

    I find that interviewing them in a neutral(ish) place helps me to hear their voice better.

    And. Yes. I am mostly sane.


  8. First off: What he/she/they said. Yeah, they're all different in my head. Yeah, they all sound different on the page. No, I have no idea how I do that.

    Second, does it bother me if other writers' characters sound alike? It can, if it gets annoying. I think the single most annoying thing along these lines is when character A says or thinks some fairly original phrase, like "Her hair is as white as an eggshell," and then later in the book, character B has the same thought. What's that? Telepathy?

    But if you have three twenty-odd-year-olds all saying "Dude," so what?

  9. I don't have a technique for making characters sound different and I don't really think there should be one either. As long as you, the writer, know your character inside and out, that character's speech should come naturally to you. Granted, if your character is British or Irish or Indian or something like that...well, then obviously you have to work at making the character sound like a British/Irish/Indian person if you aren't part of those cultures yourself. What the character says should reflect that character's personality. Not how the character says it necessarily.

    I'm not bothered if some characters sound the same, but I do notice when a character says something out of character. It also really bothers me when I can tell the author tried to get crafty or creative with speech and also when a character says something I find highly doubtful a person would ever say in real life.

  10. Well, in my mind my characters probably sound more unique than they do on the pages. LOL I try to keep the phrasings, vocab, and expressions the same within each character--that's the important part. Like, some people speak more formally, without contractions, while others use them, and don't use as "big" (complex) of vocab words as others. Consistency is the key.

  11. Wow, thanks everyone. This is a much wider range of answers than I expected to see. There are a lot of things here I hadn't considered.

  12. Michelle, I do think that part of the character differences is in my head when I'm writing. It has gotten stronger for me over time, though, so there must have been a point when I didn't consider that at all!

    Stephanie, I feel the same thing and wonder the same thing. What I hope is that when they sound different in our heads, enough of those differences make it to the page, even if they are very subtle differences.

    Scott, are the tics for the lazy writer, or is it just an additional component? To me, there's both the thoughts directing the speech and also the speech. Should we be doing both?

    Nevets, this seems to go hand in hand with what you've said earlier about taking on the character when you write. I think I used to do this more, but with 3rd person I actively moved away from it. Cyberlama is told in first person, so I've been making the transition back again. it used to come naturally for me to write in first, but not anymore.

  13. jbchicoine, I think I'm closest to your views. I do try and do things like have some characters use more contractions or longer sentences based on their personalities. I don't think I particularly notice when a book doesn't go out of its way to make people sound different though. But, that may be because it's done well or because it's done poorly!

    Tricia, thanks for the tip! I used to read out loud more, but I've gotten out of the habit. I think I need to start doing that again.

    Misha, I rarely work that way. I've tried it on occasion, and I think it's cool, but I don't think I've managed to do it successfully yet. My characters develop over the drafts, so maybe for me it's a matter of working on it until I see that complete character and then going back and revising.

    Levi, that's a great example of when the sameness can be really annoying. Yes, that bothers me a lot!

    Ashley, I think the last part of your comment is like what Levi said, and I do agree. I do hope the rest of it comes naturally as I get to know my characters better.

    Carol, consistency is a good word. I get that. I hope I'm managing to do it on the page too!

  14. Domey: What I don't like and see too often is writers taking flat characters and, rather than give them any actual personalities, make them talk funny so that the reader will maybe remember them. So instead of Jimmy Smithers having realistic thoughts, he has an unrealistic accent. That's lazy writing.

    If you look at the great Russian authors, all of the main characters share vocabulary, syntax, etc. What makes them different is what they say and why they say these things. Accents and verbal tics are usually reserved for comic characters. Same thing in Shakespeare (where poorly-educated folks will misuse or mispronounce words), where a prince and a shepherd can equally wax eloquent.

    In "Cocke & Bull" I have a couple of characters (who are lower-class and poorly-educated) use "law, me" as an interjection, but that's period and the narrative could do without it and you'd still think that these folks were distinct individuals. So I'm just saying that often this is a crutch, not the frosting on the cake of character.

  15. The other thing is that you can use speech as characterization and tell the reader things about the speaker, but that's not quite the same thing. But still: if you have a guy who is insecure about his education, his use of words like "maladroit" or "tumulus" or "anent" can point this out. But if you make someone drop all the g's at the ends of his words just so he "sounds like a Southerner," then you're just being goofy.

    There is also the question of specialized vocabulary and choice of metaphors, where people can have a worldview in which life is a battle, or a laboratory, or a church or a marketplace. And stuff. But none of that is dialect or accent or whatever; it's driven by the underlying character.

    I also begin to believe that character is a myth, by the way. A way of talking about an aspect of narrative but not a real thing.

  16. Usually what they talk about is the key for me. I have two characters who are brothers and so talk the same way but each has a different focus - in simple terms, one is angry and the other is a thinker. At the moment I'm writing a woman and the danger is that she'll end up as a female version of me. I get over that when I'm editing - I write what I want her to say and then tweak it stylistically afterwards. It also helps to have a voice in your head when your reading the text back. I started with Joanna Lumley but shifted to Alex Kingston.

  17. @Scott - Christ, no. I'm thinking more her work on Sensitive Skin which if you've not seen you should check out.

  18. I usually think of differences ala characterization as Michelle and Scott discuss. One interesting point I discovered is that I began reading a story I've read multiple times in English in Swedish (as my first full-length novel in another language) and this led me to catch things I hadn't noticed the first time around. In particular, whenever the point-of-view changes I find it harder to read; need to look up more words etc. because their way of relating to the world has changed along with the view. Not something I noticed originally reading this, but is something I noticed in a different language. (I confirmed that this wasn't added in translation; just not something I noticed.)

    As a reader, I'm usually not terribly concerned. However, I did sample one novel that introduced a lot of main characters initially and they sounded so much alike that I couldn't keep them apart. I didn't buy the novel.

  19. Jumping in a little late, here, but YES... characters must sound distinct and their speech must be appropriate to their age and other social determiners. Creating a detailed character profile will help before writing. Then, searches (or tags in Scrivener, etc.) can help you follow one character's speech at a time, to compare, look for inconsistencies, etc.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.