Character Voice: 5 Insightful Questions to Discover Your Character’s Unique Voice

by The Magic Violinist | 20 comments

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.

Character Voice: 5 Revealing Questions to Discover Your Character's Unique 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!

PRACTICE

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!

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The Magic Violinist is a young author who writes mostly fantasy stories. She loves to play with her dog and spend time with her family. Oh, and she's homeschooled. You can visit her blog at themagicviolinist.blogspot.com. You can also follow The Magic Violinist on Twitter (@Magic_Violinist).

20 Comments

  1. Christina B.

    Thank you for your advice

    Reply
  2. EndlessExposition

    “Honey, I’m home!”

    “You’re hilarious.”

    “You shouldn’t say that, it only encourages me. Where are you?”

    “In the living room. Hey.”

    “Howdy. Mind if I join you?”

    “Go right ahead.”

    “One moment. How was work?”

    “Slow. The undertakers took our heart attack victim back yesterday and my paperwork is done. Emmet is reorganizing the lab to kill time and Soo-Jin is ready to kill him. I might help her.”

    “Careful what you tell me, Doctor, I am an officer of the law.”

    “Yeah, I know, anything I say can and will be used against me. Jail sounds more interesting than Morton Forensic right about now. And how was your day?”

    “Not much better than yours. The only thing coming across our desks right now is this B&E business. But Cannavale is taking the lead on that one. I’m reviewing a lot of witness statements and passing along what I find, just for something to do, really. What are you reading?”

    “Nothing!”

    “Well that certainly doesn’t sound like nothing.”

    “It’s just some gossip rag I picked up at the checkout counter.”

    “You don’t read gossip rags.”

    “Hey!”

    “Let me see!”

    “No! Knock it off, you’ll rip it!”

    “Alex, let me see, please?”

    “Fine.”

    “Thank you! Lavender Magazine? America’s #1 source for lesbian news and culture?”

    “Quit laughing.”

    “I’m not laughing. Much. Why did you buy this?”

    “I dunno, I just – thought it would be nice to read something with couples that look like us for a change.”

    “But we’re not lesbians.”

    “Well if you know of any publications that cater to queerplatonic relationships between aro/ace and heterosexual women, let me know. I’ll buy a lifetime subscription.”

    “Touché. So what’s the cover story? How to curate your flannel collection? Subaru 101?”

    “See, this is why I didn’t want you to see it!”

    “Hey, I’m sorry. Really. Tell me what you were reading?”

    “Butch/Femme Relationships: Romantic or Relic?”

    “Hmm. So what exactly is it about?”

    “Two of their columnists debating butch/femme relationships. One of them likes the traditional gender roles, and the other thinks it’s sexist.”

    “Have to say I agree with the second one.”

    “Me too. It is kinda fun to think about though.”

    “What is?”

    “Like – which one of us is ‘the man’ in our relationship.”

    “Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. I am not getting into this with you.”

    “Come on, you must have an opinion.”

    “Nope, I am not entertaining this heteronormative nonsense.”

    “Alright, alright.”

    “…you’re definitely the man though.”

    “What? How am I the man? You’re the one with the walk-in closet full of three piece suits!”

    “Yes; but gender expression is just one component of gender roles. As you pointed out, I have a walk-in closet. I spend more time and money on my appearance than you do. I enjoy domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning. Of the two of us, you have the larger salary.”

    “Okay, you have a trust fund. Neither of our salaries is paying for this ritzy apartment. And you listen to rock music and own a gun.”

    “I own a gun because my line of works requires it. You kickbox and drive a motorcycle of your own volition. And you curse more than I do. I rest my case.”

    “Well I – I –”

    “Yes?”

    “I don’t concede, I just need some time to organize my rebuttal.”

    “The opposition awaits your remarks with bated breath.”

    “Shut up.”

    “You love me.”

    “Yeah, yeah…you take your coffee black.”

    “Alex, I swear to God!”

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      Love this! I never once got confused as to who was speaking, which is especially difficult with a section of dialogue this long. It was witty and entertaining all the way through. Great job!

  3. Azure Darkness Yugi

    “I was so close!”

    “Relax, we’ll meet them again.”

    “Yes, your highness!”

    “No need to call me that, its just you and me here. Alooone.”

    “W-Well…it’s just…”

    “What?”

    “It’s difficult talking to you.”

    “Is it because of my title?”

    “No! Is because you’re wearing THAT!”

    “What’s wrong with my outfit?”

    “You’re a monarch! At least wear something more dignifying!”

    “Nah, not my style. Those clothes are so damn restricting. I can hardly breath in those.”

    “At least speak in a proper manner.”

    “Nah, I don’t want sound like I have a stick up my-”

    “YOUR HIGHNESS!”

    Reply
    • Beth Schmelzer

      Love your dialogue. Yes, I can hear (and see) these two characters!

    • Azure Darkness Yugi

      Thanks you. When I began writing the dialogue, the ideas started to flow. Has the happened to you?

    • themagicviolinist

      I love the nonchalant style your royal character has. That’s not something you usually see when it comes to characters with positions of power. Very humorous!

    • Azure Darkness Yugi

      Happy you liked it.

    • Savannah Goins

      Great snippet of dialogue! I laughed at the end 🙂

  4. Quentin Venney

    “Still at it I see? You know the good book is just as good for you.”

    “well, I can’t see how Father.”

    “You’ve just never given it a try, it works wonders for the mind and soul… come to bible study on sunday, just one time and see how you like it.”

    “can’t”

    “why not?

    “I have free time filling my schedule, I’m just completely booked… maybe next week?”

    ———————————————————–

    “you been anywhere interesting lately?”

    “end of the road”

    “What’s it like?”

    “turns out it’s just livery stable.”

    “Always thought it would be something else, a bright light or something.”

    “nope, just horses, and wood.”

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I can totally tell the difference in voices, especially in the first section. One character uses longer, flowing sentences and the other is clipped and to the point. Nice job!

  5. TerriblyTerrific

    Characters can be so difficult to describe, sometimes. I have some work to do. Thank you.

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      I hear you. I love characters, but it can be tricky making each one unique and well-rounded. Good luck!

  6. David H. Safford

    Great post! I tend to “act” out my characters, at least in my head. Unfortunately, that means a lot of them sound like me, so I have to refine the voices in the revisions!

    Reply
    • themagicviolinist

      That tactic is especially great for visualization when it comes to what gestures they use, what clothes they wear, etc. Voices are difficult, but that’s what revisions are for!

  7. Gary G Little

    I was working on the following passage from my current short story. The scene is set on an interplanetary passenger ship (circa Queen Mary) bound for the moons of Jupiter. Gaylan James is a main character in the story, whereas Beulah Harrington-Von Reitman is nothing more than a pop-up character. Here’s the thing. Gaylan appears to me wearing a ship-suit, in his late twenties, with buzzcut hair. Right now he is a person of many colors; e.g. I don’t see him as any specific race. He’s just a crewman doing his job. However, given the conversation in this segment, I see Beulah as a white, blue-haired matriarch with her nose so high in the air it could act as a mainsail if they were on an ocean. Not a ship suit, instead, she is wearing a bustle, hooped skirt, high button shoes, and twirling a parasol. That’s how my mind’s eye sees her as I put her down on paper. Remember The Music Man? I see Beulah as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn.

    ###

    Instrument checks done, he had some time to ponder what in Holy-Hell had happened? ICS Balfour was three months out of space dock and seven months from its destination; Ganymede colony. They were about to pass through the Asteroid Belt on a short-term intercept orbit bound for Jupiter’s moons. The ship had been in micro-gravity for two weeks, costing towards the deceleration leg of their orbit in about another 2 weeks.

    The passage through the Belt was a major concern of the passengers. Many a time Gaylan was stopped in a passageway as concerned passengers queried the efficacy of transiting such a dangerous area. It was difficult to overcome nearly a century of Holly and Bollywood bullshit concerning the Belt.

    Mrs. Von Reitman had accosted him in a passageway aft of the Observation Dome. “Young man, where may I see the Captain?”

    “Ma’am?” Gaylan had grabbed a handhold. Part of a crewman’s duties was to aid and assist passengers.

    “I want to see the Captain.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. He’s mighty busy right now.”

    “And just where is he that he is so busy he cannot speak with me?”

    “On the Bridge, Ma’am, on the other side of the Observation Dome, but you have to be Bridge Personnel to get there.”

    “We shall see about that! You will assist me in getting to this … bridge … what are they doing … playing cards when they should be flying this ship … ”

    Gaylan finally got a word in, “No Ma’am, I cannot.”

    That got her attention. Anytime anyone said no to Beulah Harrington-Von Reitman it got her attention.

    “What?”

    “I’m on my way to my duty station Ma’am, I cannot escort you to the Captain.”

    “You will escort me or I shall tell the Captain!”

    “When … if, you see the Captain, ma’am.” With that, Gaylan turned back down the passageway and pulled himself along the come-a-longs to the compartment of his duty station. Behind him, he heard the unhappy cackling of an old hen not happy at all.

    Reply
  8. The Political Geek Astrology N

    “Yo, Jenny. You know who Regina George reminds me of?”
    “Who?”
    “Madison. Don’t you think?”
    “No doubt. She also reminds me of you a little.”
    “What! I ain’t nothing like Regina George!”
    “You kind of are.”
    “Asshole. Don’t talk to me ever again.”

    Reply
  9. Savannah Goins

    My current work in progress takes place in the present time but has a very old character from the late 1800’s in it. When I couldn’t find much useful info on the internet about how people talked then, I went through my library and pulled out some books that were written around that time. I selected The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and after reading a few chapters, I had a great list of phrases and words. I got good responses from beta readers on that character’s voice. So if you’re having a hard time finding the nuances you’d like to apply, you might try reading a book from the time period or even watching a movie set in that time.

    Reply
  10. Takira Hodges

    “Just…stop, ok.”

    “Why? Did I do something wrong? I know I can be weird because of my father…”

    “No! Its not that, its just- you. You want me to be this, I don’t know, different girl. I can’t be.”

    “I’ve never told you to be like them, Alyssa. You know that.”

    “Then why won’t you leave me alone?”

    ” I actually don’t know. I just… like hanging around with you.”

    “I’m not like the others, I can’t be like them-”

    “Stop. I don’t want you to be. Look at me. I’m just a friend who wants to help you.”

    “Why do you even care?”

    “Why do you always be in the library? You’re lonely aren’t you?”

    “I can’t- this is stupid.”

    “Trust me, remember? Friends trust friends.”

    Reply

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