One of the key signs of a well-written character is when the reader is able to identify them with a single line of dialogue. It’s that feeling of I’d know that character anywhere. How are authors able to perfect this art? By finding their character voice.
5 Ways to Discover Your Character's Voice
“Voice” is a relatively broad term, so let’s break it down a little. By finding your character’s voice, you’re finding that spark that makes them unique. Specifically, you’re able to figure out in what unique ways they speak, think, and write. If you pay attention to the way your friends and family communicate, they all have different voices.
This should be the same for your characters, and there are five questions you can ask to discover their voices.
1. What level of education do they have?
Generally speaking, a recent high school graduate shouldn’t be tossing around the words “acumen” or “parsimonious” in everyday conversation. Similarly, a woman with a PhD probably isn’t going to use text speak.
This doesn’t mean high schoolers can’t use big words or somebody with a doctorate won’t ever change “you” to “u” in a text, but it’s something to keep in mind when figuring out who your characters are and what they sound like.
2. Where did they grow up?
Not only will accents change depending on where they grew up, but certain words altogether will, too. If they’re from a northern state, they’ll push a “shopping cart” when getting their groceries. But if they’re from the south, they’ll push a “buggy.” “Water fountains” could also turn into “drinking fountains” or “bubblers.”
Do a little research about local lingo. Not only is it interesting, but it adds a whole new layer of authenticity to your character.
3. When did they grow up?
The early 1800s? The ‘80s? ‘90s? The future? What sort of slang would they have used when they were young? How do they address adults?
If your character grew up in a decade you’re unfamiliar with, you might want to talk to people you know who are the same age. Pay attention to what words they use and what their speaking pattern is like.
4. Who influenced them?
People have a tendency to start to sound like those they’re around often. Who does your character spend time with? Their teachers? Their mom? Teammates from football? Their elderly neighbor? Whoever they talk to most, that person should influence the way your character speaks.
Maybe their best friend has a sort of catchphrase. Your character could say it once or twice, out of habit. Most people are a blend of their closest friends.
5. What languages do they speak?
If your character is bilingual, that will change the way they speak in both languages. Idioms hardly ever translate well into another language. They might forget a word for something in English, but remember it in Spanish. When they’re mad, they’re likely to revert to their native language to rant and curse. If they’re talking to someone who knows both languages, they might switch back and forth without even realizing it.
Make sure you know which characters speak what so everyone communicates in a language they have in common!
Find Their Voice by Writing It
In the end, the best way to find your character's voice is . . . to write. Try writing in your character's voice and see where it takes you. What words do you find them using? What unique patterns of speech develop?
This process of discovery will lead to a character voice we'd recognize anywhere.
How do you find your character’s voice? Let us know in the comments!
Create two characters (or use two characters you’ve already written) and consider the questions above. For fifteen minutes, write a conversation between the two using only dialogue. Is it easy to tell who’s speaking? Is each character distinct? Would readers be able to tell how old they are and where they come from?
When you’re finished, post your work in the comments, if you’d like. Be sure to give your fellow writers some feedback, too. Have fun!