3 Tips for Creating Distinct Character Voices

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

As I work on Airstream, my middle grade science fiction novel, I’m working to create distinct character voices. This is especially important because, as is so often the case with speculative fiction, I have a larger cast of characters than I normally work with. It is also tricky because you meet one group of siblings and then, five chapters later, the second group of siblings.

Not only do I have 6 characters to keep track of, I also need to make sure that they don’t sound alike. Here are three things that I do to give each character a voice of their own.

Consider Who They Are

The first thing that I do is consider who my character is. I’m not going to summarize all six of them for you but instead will focus on two key characters.

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels.com

Ada is 11. She is a scientist, obsessively loves to learn, and is an introvert. She isn’t shy, so she is outspoken, but prefers to be alone or around only a handful of people. Team work is not her thing.

Jaxon is 17. Jaxon is a natural athlete who loves little more than competitive sports. He’s a fair student but prefers school for the social aspects. He is loud and boisterous but reigns it in when he’s around his sister.

Create a Unique Vocabulary

Once I know a bit about each character, I consider their vocabulary. Ada peppers what she says with science terminology. She sounds “brainy.” She also has a tendency to sound combative because she knows she is smarter than a lot of people.

You might also expect Jaxon, the competitive athlete, to sound combative. But he’s a team player. Ada tells other people what to do. Jaxon discusses what “we” should do as well as what is good for the group.

Read Dialogue Aloud

Last but not least, I read the dialogue aloud. Remember that dialogue is speech spoken aloud. While you never write exactly the way that people actually speak, you want dialogue to flow and sound natural unless you need your character to sound stilted. Reading the text aloud helps me to hear each of my characters.

Use these three tips to create and hone unique voices for your various characters. Soon you’ll have a cast of independent characters, each with something to say.


2 Reasons Authors Should Write with Audiobooks in Mind

Amazon.com: Cemetery Boys (9781250250469): Thomas, Aiden: Books

Thursday I finished listening to the audiobook of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. After the end of the book, the author and the reader, Avi Roque, interviewed each other. Interestingly enough, my mystery writers group also ended up discussing audiobooks. Here are two things I took away from these conversations.

Each Character Must Sound Distinct

This was something Roque pointed out. When they are reading an entire book, they need to give each character a distinct sound. Imagine how much more informative our dialogue would be if we, the authors, give each character a unique sound or voice.

There are a variety of ways we can do this. Part of this comes through in our choice of vocabulary. Someone who grows up in 1920s New York City will have a very different vocabulary than a comoparable character who grows up in the 1950s. This means that even if they interact, they will each have their own vocabulary.

But vocabulary isn’t all. Each character will have a unique way of stringing words together. My husband and son were each born in the same city. They grew up under similar circumstances. My husband is the king of the brief declarative sentence. My son? His opinions are just as strong but he has mastered what can only be called a flow of conscious. Even when they discuss the same things, each sounds unique.

Hearing Your Work Changes How You Write

One author pointed out that several people she knows have recorded audio books. Hearing their work read aloud by a professional impacted forever how they write, actually modifying their individual styles. Their writing got tighter.

Something I’ve noticed about my own writing is that sometimes I fall into the formal tone and elaborate sentence structure I firmed up as a grad student. It works fine in print but when I hear it read? On a good day it sounds melodramatic and pompous.

Hearing your work read loud impacts your pacing, your rhythm and your word choice. You notice that you’ve used the same word, or another version of this word, three times in one paragraph. You notice when your sentence structure isn’t varied.

Even if you aren’t writing an audio script, think audio book while you write. Give each character a voice and make sure you smooth out the bumps in your writing.


Voice: The Many Faces of One Piece of Writing

voice facesWhen a new writer asks about voice, I always feel myself hesitate before I respond.  What does she want to know?  Is the talking about character voice?  Author voice?  The tone of an individual piece of writing?  Because voice is all of this and much, much more.

This past weekend at the Missouri SCBWI Advanced Writers Retreat Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books took us through a session on voice.  The first thing that she did in this session may have been the most important.  She helped us realize just how complicated the voice of a work can be because all of these elements can play a part:

  • The author’s voice.
  • The character’s voice.
  • The narrator’s voice.
  • The voice of the person narrating the audio book.
  • The voice of the librarian reading it aloud.

This is only a fraction of the things on her list which was probably about twenty items long.  Even this abbreviated list can help you see how and why this topic is so complex and so very difficult to discuss.

First things first, fix your voice as the author.  How your writing sounds will depend on a variety of factors.  Where and when did you grow up?  This will influence many of the words and phrases that you use — ice box vs refrigerator, pollywog vs tadpole.  Next comes your level of education and your field.  Even when writing fiction, an astrophysicist with a Ph.D. will write very differently from a philosophy major with a bachelor’s degree.  Other things that factor in include your hobbies because relevant terms will find their way into your vocabulary.

Now what about your character’s voice?  In my current fiction wip, my main character is a 12 year-old girl who is a mechanical marvel.  Her voice is very different from either of her brothers.  The youngest is 9 and adores animals.  The oldest is 21 and a veteren.  Think about how different each of these character’s would speak.

That is their character voice which is influenced by my voice which may, one day, be influenced by the voices of the people reading it aloud. Its almost more than a body can wrap her head around.




Reading as a Writer

wing and clawNot long ago, I pointed out to my critique group that since I’m writing an early middle grade novel, I shouldn’t read middle grade fiction.  “What do you mean that you’re writing middle grade but you never read middle grade?”

Sigh.  No.  Right now.  Right this moment.  For the next month or so, I probably shouldn’t read midde grade.  Why because I’m drafting an early middle grade novel.  I have discovered the hard way that if I read a novel written at more or less the same level with amazing voice, it hijacks my voice.

This time around, I made the mistake of picking up Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park.  WOW.  Wow.  wow.  Every now and again I pick up a book and think “I wish I had written this.”  For me, this is one of those books. That’s the good news.  I’ve found a book to go all fan-girl over.

But the bad news is that I’ve lost my character’s voice.  Not entirely.  Every once in a while Clem once again sounds like Clem.

She never sounds like Park’s character.  That would be another problem altogether.  When I lose her voice, she sounds all Midwest neutral.  She has no accent.  She could be announcing the news.  Pbbt.

So how am I going to rediscover Clem’s voice?  First things first, because I am Fan-Girl, I’m going to finish reading Forest of Wonders.  Then I’m going to reread the begining of the book.  That’s where I heard Clem’s voice loud and clear.

I’m not going to find where I lost it.  I can fix that later.  And I know there will be plenty of things to fix.  But I am going to read it and reread it where her voice comes through.  Hopefully it will allow me to reclaim it as I move forward.  If not, I know what speech patterns inspired this voice.  Push comes to shove, I’ll take a road trip down to the Bootheel.  Otherwise I’ll see if I can find a radio show or something that will allow me to hear what I’ve lost.

Until then, I have a boy and a bat and a girl and a bear and some other critters and kids to read out of trouble.  Excuse me, won’t you?


Character Voice

Lately, I’ve been working on multiple projects.  No really?  Anyone who knows me is not the least bit surprised.  Given my to-do list, working on a variety of things each day is a must.

That’s no problem when I’m working on nonfiction.  That’s because the voice in nonfiction is largely my own.  Whether I’m explaining to a group of writers how to get their debut novel into an editor’s hands or telling a parent how to take their children through a writing exercise, I write it the way I would tell them how to do it face-to-face.

But lately, in addition to my nonfiction, I’ve been working on two or three fiction projects at a time — a middle grade novel (magical realism), a young adult novel (fantasy) and a young adult short story (contemporary).  Each of the main characters has a distinct voice, which is a good thing.  But given how different each of these pieces is from the others, moving from one voice to another has been difficult.

Read about how I finally solved this problem on the Muffin.