“Help you, I will.”
As soon as you read those words, I bet an image of Yoda from Star Wars popped into your head. Every writer hopes that their characters’ voices will be just as unique and unforgettable. When characters lack recognizable verbal tics, conversations may flow together and confuse readers, especially if dialogue tags are scarce. In contrast, a distinct voice can be identified without any attribution at all. But when you’re balancing a wide assortment of characters, how do you make all of them sound different?
Help you, I will. I’ve coined another handy acronym to guide you through this challenge: V.O.I.C.E. By considering five factors, you’ll be able to craft lines that readers can clearly match to the related characters. Though I’m only going to focus on external dialogue here, several of the tips can be carried over to internal monologue as well.
V: View of the World
How does your character approach life? Is she sunshiny? Anxious? Cynical? Innocent? If you tailor her dialogue to that perspective, you’ll lend consistency to her appearances on the page. A person of faith is unlikely to curse. And a gloomy person is unlikely to spread encouragement.
Even children’s literature like Winnie-the-Pooh demonstrates how endearing characters become when they have trademarked ways of talking. Compare Kanga’s optimism to Eeyore’s pessimism when he loses his tail:
Kanga: “You know, I might have just the thing. Up, up, up you go. There you are!”
Eeyore: “It’s an awful nice tail, Kanga. Much nicer than the rest of me.”
Notice how easily you can tell them apart? That’s because their outlooks color their responses. To push these nuances to the surface of your own WIP, pick two characters and draft up an interchange between them. The catch? Don’t use any tags. After you finish, ask someone to read the scene. Can they distinguish each character’s worldview? If not, you’ll know you have revising to do.
How does your character earn income? What jobs has he held in the past? His fields of expertise can influence his jargon and how he structures his sentences. A teacher is apt to adhere to correct grammar. An athlete might toss around sports analogies. And a scientist might explain even the most mundane details in precise technical terms.
The famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes logically dissects every crime he faces, and readers readily associate his verbiage with high intelligence and keen powers of observation. The following quotes would be much less believable coming from a sports enthusiast.
Quote 1: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
Quote 2: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
As practice, tweak a simple statement half a dozen or so times to reflect the vocabulary of a specific profession. For example, as an elementary school teacher, I don’t instruct my students to think. I say, “Let’s brainstorm.” If I need their attention, I say, “Give me five.” But how would a football coach request the same from his team? What about a grandparent? An irate driver? A snob?
Lately I’ve been watching a TV show called Community that’s a fascinating study of character voice. It has seven main characters, but if I read an episode’s script with the names clipped out, I could predict who each line belongs to. Why? Because of the telltale quirks, patterns, and attitudes the screenwriters instilled in the characters.
Overly sugary Shirley constantly brings up Jesus. Britta obsesses over social causes. Egocentric Jeff is fluent in sarcasm. Childlike Troy looks to his peers for advice. Nerdy Abed makes movie references and has a catchphrase: “Cool, cool, cool.” Rich heir Pierce blurts wildly inappropriate and offensive remarks. And rule-follower Annie’s cheerfulness brightens her friends’ moods.
Now it’s your turn. Choose three of the characters above and have them discuss the impact of deforestation on rainforests (or another semi-random topic) while letting their idiosyncrasies leak through. Then you can put your own characters in a similar arena to tease out their specialness.
As Allison touched on a few weeks ago in her article about dialects, a character’s background and environment can affect his inflections, sense of humor, the mottos he embraces, and the slang he defaults to. In one of my WIPs, I had to majorly overhaul a character because her dialogue contained no trace of Ebonics, which contradicted where she grew up. Southern characters, like the ones in this excerpt from Where the Crawdads Sing, would also lose their authenticity if you removed the twang:
“Ma’ll be back,” he said.
“I dunno. She’s wearin’ her gator shoes.”
“A ma don’t leave her kids. It ain’t in ’em.”
“You told me that fox left her babies.”
Test out the technique by copying a section of dialogue from a book on your shelf into a document. Then apply a new cultural heritage like a filter, adjusting the text accordingly. The result should be dialogue with the same meaning but a much different delivery.
A person’s education level may prompt her word choices, wit, grammar, and tone. In the classic My Fair Lady, readers can track how Eliza Doolittle’s foray into upper-class society transforms her. She starts as a poor street woman who communicates coarsely:
“I ain’t done nothin’ wrong by speaking to the gentleman…so help me, I never spoke to him ’cept so far as to buy a flower off me.”
On a bet, Henry Higgins undertakes refining her. He teaches her a new vernacular, correct pronunciations, and how to properly interact in various social settings. By the end, Eliza’s learning shines through, and so does her arc:
“You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
Return to the segment of dialogue you typed up during the previous point, except this time alter the speaker’s education. Skew it to fall somewhere between Eliza Doolittle (illiterate) and Henry Higgins (scholarly). What happens?
V.O.I.C.E. in Action
I invited freelance editor and author J. A. Marx to share her method for shaping character voices, which employs a combination of occupation, culture, and education:
“After I define my character, I research his vocation/education to collect a few distinct terms and phrases he’d be familiar with, and I sprinkle those throughout his dialogue (and narration if he’s the POV character).
“For example, one of my characters, Akiko Foxx, is a theater student at a university. Even though he’s on a private tropical island with his buddies, he still uses phrases like ‘center stage’ and ‘in the can.’ He also describes their sleeping quarters as ‘a remake of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple set in one room,’ with an implication that he acted in the stage play.
“Akiko’s best friend, Sabio Quinn, is a total intellectual with a photographic memory. Sabio means ‘wise’ in his mother’s native language, a name I chose intentionally to remind readers of his Hispanic looks and the fact that he’s an Ivy Leaguer. He thinks in mathematical, Latin, or computer programming lingo, and his vocabulary is higher than his friends’. In one scene, his mentor, Fletch, joins him at the hospital, where he and his friend Jase are recovering from a near-fatal trauma.
Wondering what had the Ivy Leaguer engrossed, Fletch turned and peeked behind him at a cluster of geometric shapes. “You like modern art?”
“Euclidean 4D-cubes fascinate me.” Sabio nodded at Jase. “And it’s a preferred diversion over watching the mind-numbing MTV.”
“Sabio’s last comment confirms the natural conflict that often arises between him and Jase, the musician who says annoying things like ‘Dude! Let’s rock-n-roll.’”
Bonus Implementation Exercises
Before I close, I wanted to suggest three additional exercises for honing your skills at creating unique character voices.
ONE: Jot down a list of emotions and situations. Based on your protagonist’s worldview, occupation, idiosyncrasies, culture, and education, how would he express himself when dealing with each one? Watch how it works with two characters I made up on the spot. First, a sixth grade band director:
- Greeting someone: “Good morning. Time to toot your own horn!”
- Feeling needed: “You think that sounds good. And it does. But if you want to win, if you want to show which band is best in the district, you’re going to have to keep your eyes on me, because I’m the one who keeps the beat.”
- Running out of patience: “Do you all have diarrhea of the mouth? Quit talking!”
- Excited: “This overture you’re playing, it’s high school stuff, you know. And we’re just as good as they are. In fact, we’re better. So you know what? We’re not going to compete with the other junior high bands. No, we’re entering this contest in the high school category. High school! Are you with me? One more time, then, from the top.”
Second, a doting mother:
- Greeting someone: “Well, hello, dear. Aren’t you just as cute as a button?”
- Feeling needed: “You poor dear. What you need is food in your tummy. Why don’t you just sit back and relax, and I’ll bring you some chicken soup.”
- Running out of patience: “Oh my! I believe I’ve had quite enough of this nonsense.”
- Excited: “Can you believe it? This is just… Oh! I don’t know what to say.”
TWO: Swap out the starring characters in a portion of your WIP. Do the reactions shift?
For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the Lion are both frightened when they meet the Wizard. But Dorothy steps forward first with her request, whereas the Lion waits until the end, has to be pushed, and when he’s confronted, he faints. At that point, Dorothy sets aside her fear, at least temporarily, and boldly scolds the Wizard. Both characters stay true to their voices. Dorothy reveals herself to be protective, caring, and loyal. The Lion reveals himself to be cowardly and insecure.
THREE: Interview your characters. No matter the questions or the answers, their voices should stand apart from each other—enough that dialogue tags are unnecessary.
Below is a snippet of dialogue from Eoin Colfer’s YA novel Supernatural. The voices of the two characters do not waver. Ziplock is a sassy kid poking fun at authority. Redwood is the overbearing authority figure who patronizes those in his custody.
Ziplock snickered just loud enough for Redwood to hear.
“You think I’m joking, Francis?” shouted the man, boxing Ziplock on the ear. “You think I wouldn’t do it?”
With their personalities in mind, note how this sample interview question and the characters’ imaginary responses play out: What is your favorite holiday?
Ziplock: “April Fool’s Day. I own that holiday. And with that narcissistic Neanderthal in charge, I celebrate it many times a year.”
Redwood: “Valentine’s Day. I hate all the mush, but ladies can’t resist a man in uniform. Besides, it ain’t going to cost me a dime. Last month, we busted a jewelry heist, and Marv in the evidence room owes me, you know what I mean?”
Raise the Megaphone
Having a strong understanding of your characters’ worldviews, occupations, idiosyncrasies, culture, and education will give you an edge when you’re writing dialogue. Now that you have the V.O.I.C.E. acronym as a tool, try it out.
Or, as Yoda would argue, “No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?