Giving Each Character a Distinct Voice

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I’ve been watching Brendon Sanderson on Youtube again. He suggested a really interesting exercise to create unique dialogue for each of your characters.

In the past, the exerise that I had heard was to copy and paste your dialogue into unique documents. Each document would be the dialogue for one character. Then you review the dialogue for that one character and make sure that the voice is consistent.

I found this to be a really useful way to look for the individual traits that make each character’s dialogue unique. What do I mean? The swimmer sounds competitive and uses swimming terminology. The quiet, insecure character doesn’t make statements. She asks questions.

What Sanderson recommended is that you initially draft the scene using only dialogue. Don’t use tags. Don’t throw in beats of action. No description. Include absolutely nothing but dialogue.

Why do it this way? Because your character isn’t likely to be monologuing. If they are, that’s something else you need to fix. Your character is most likely talking to someone else who responds and on you go.

But with only two characters it is really easy to keep track of which character is which. Instead, include at least three characters. As you draft, consider what makes your character unique in this situation. Not only do you have the unique vocabularly and phrasing that your character would use, you have your character’s unique ambitions, motivations and goals. You are also more likely to note whether or not your character seems sympathetic in comparison to your other characters. And once you’ve perfected the dialogue, you can add in narration and introspection and all the rest. To see how an all dialogue piece of writing works, check out this short story Sanderson recommended, “They’re Made Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson.

During the dialogue discussion, one of Sanderson’s students asked him about using dialect. He pointed out that dialect is like seasoning and that you should use it very sparingly. He told about an element of dialect that he created for one of his fantasy stories. Before it went to print, his editor went through and cut over half of it.

From my experience, be very, very careful writing dialect. Some time ago, a very popular author wrote a book with a Southern character. She’s a New Yorker, her editor was a New Yorker, and her character’s dialogue sounded like a New Yorker doing Southern. It was horrifying. Not that everyone agreed with me. For the most part, New Yorkers didn’t note the problem. Southerners? They noticed.

Create rock-solid dialogue to give your readers insight into your characters and your story.

–SueBE