Inspired by Joe Moore’s excellent post yesterday on Narrative Voice, I thought about my process for making characters distinct in the worlds I build in a novel. We are all influenced by where we grew up or where we live now, our race, social class, jobs, friends, religious beliefs, and other factors. Any character an author creates is no different. It’s not enough to picture their outward appearance. Give them a background and sphere of influence. Sometimes it helps for me to hear their voices in my head. (Yes, that’s allowed without taking medication. Special dispensation for authors.)
I recently binged on Sherlock (a la Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sleepy Hollow (British star Tom Mison’s reinvented Icabod Crane). I loved the notion of Sherlock’s brilliant mind leaps and I also loved the idea of a more stilted proper speech of an educated scholarly man similar to the Oxford professor of Icabod Crane, but I wanted my character to be American with a brash punch to him when he wanted to make a point. Those rare moments of punch give him a sense of gravitas and unexpected depth of personality. Being familiar with these TV characters, it became a fun challenge to meld their distinct voices and mannerisms into my American FBI profiler haunted by visions of crime scenes when he sleeps.
It’s amazing fun when you can hear the character voice in your head and write with a good pace, without filtering the words you type on the page. I call this “free association” where you channel the voice of your character without having to think about it. Over the years I’ve gotten better at this, which also comes with a cautionary warning born of experience. Often if you THINK in free association without filter, you will SPEAK that way too. Not always good in a social setting. #FilteringSavesLives
Five Key Ways to Give Your Character a Distinct Voice
1.) Word Choices:
- What is your character’s vocabulary?
- How educated is he/she?
- How much does race/culture play into his/her narrative?
- Are there regional influences on his/her speech? (I feel most comfortable writing in Midwest, TX, OK, and Alaska, places I’ve lived and worked.)
- Is slang or pop culture references a part of his/her speech patterns? (A secondary character can use slang as a way to distinguish that character’s voice from the protagonist. Fewer tag lines necessary.)
- How old is your character? (Don’t force a more youthful influence if you aren’t comfortable, but be aware of generation gaps.)
- Is your character from another country? (Word choices and even spellings can indicate where a character is from. I wouldn’t take any short cuts here. If your character is British, but YOU as the writer aren’t as familiar with nuances of a particular region in the UK, get help from a native speaker or build a backstory where your character has other influences that will temper their voice into more of a melting pot.)
- What gender is your character? (Gender can play a big part in making narrative distinctive. Avoid the cliché, but men and women are fun to contrast, no matter what your vision is for unique individuals.)
2.) Confidence Level:
- If your character is an assertive cop or from a military background, he or she would expressive themselves in a more direct and decisive fashion.
- How forceful or passive is your character? (A deliberate use of the passive voice can be an indicator of a submissive character. Use of “Uh” or “Um” can indicate hesitation and lack of self-confidence.)
- Does he or she take charge and have a no nonsense approach to dealing with conflict or do they only react and let others take over? (Even their clothes choices can indicate how confident they are.)
- Does your character have distinctive habits or mannerisms? (Sometimes a facial tic can be fun to exploit at key times.)
- Does your character have a unique hobby or interest that affects how they speak? (Someone into sailing could infuse nautical words, for example.)
- What humor do they have, if any? (Characters can have humor play out cynically in their internal monologue, yet their dialogue lines don’t reflect humor at all. This can be great for comic relief. Also characters can have distinctive sense of humor from very dry to crass bathroom humor.)
4.) Internal/External Voice:
- Your character might have a day job, but at night they come home to a family with small children or a demanding pet. How does their internal voice change when they let their guard down? Do their internal thoughts show a more tender vulnerability? This duality can bring depth and complexity to your character.
- I love imagery, but let’s face it, some characters will never think in terms of elaborate metaphors. It would not make sense to force it. In the case of my educated professor type, for example, his narrative could be infused with imagery/metaphors or perhaps literary influences because that’s how his mind works. He sees reality of the world around him yet he longs for the fictional world of his favorite book. If my character is a street kid without much education, he might be more influenced by rap music lyrics or the daily hustle on the street where he fast talks to survive everyday. No matter who your character is, they would have their own frame of reference for making comparisons.
FOR GRINS & GIGGLES: I took a little champion New York Times Online Test of 25 questions that analyzed how I spoke to determine where I live. (Best suited for residents of the U.S.) The test came back with a result that I lived in Rockford Illinois, New Orleans, and Rochester NY. Totally wrong since I live and grew up in Texas, but my mother was a Yankee and I’ve lived all over the country, so apparently that has also influenced me.) Take the test and see what your results are. Did they get it right? Let us know.
For TKZ Discussion:
How do you infuse a unique voice to your character? What are your key influences? If you’ve written characters outside your comfort zone, what tricks can you share about how to make that work?
A good checklist, Jordan. The thing I do at the beginning is a “voice journal,” a free form doc that is the character speaking to me. I just work on it until I start to hear different from my own, or the other characters. It’s a bit like acting/improvisation. Then I use left brain questions along the same lines you suggest to increase the singularity of the voice.
Absolutely a great tip, Jim. Since most people are visual learners, your voice journal would solidify the character from a nebulous beginning. Writing in first person can unplug creative juices too. Thank you.
Thanks, Jordan, for a great discussion. I’m printing it and saving it.
Obviously, if you have the opportunity, spending time around someone or a group with a narrative voice you are seeking helps to “soak up” the “flavor.”
I love boots on the ground & eavesdropping. Stalkerish but effective. Thanks Steve.
The dialect test is useless. I’m from the mid-west with a learned-English-from-Brits mother. (No mid-west in my test results).
The test id’d a few vocab items that I picked up in college which had no local equivalent (e.g., “grinders”) but most of it is hoary and out of date, based on assumptions about the parochialism of testees who must be assumed not only never to have traveled, but never to have watched a movie or TV or read a book. These tests don’t do well with an educated or re-located testing audience.
A well traveled reader who is naturally curious can definitely show mixed results. One of mt Brit friends took the test & came out Hawaiian. Aloha.
I’m having great fun with a secondary homicide detective’s voice. He has George Bush’s habit of giving everyone nicknames. The nicknames get more outrageous or insulting, depending on the person he’s talking to.
Omg, I love it, K. I love humor in secondary characters. Endearing. The nickname habit is a great idea. Ha!
Jordan – this post came just at the right time for me. On a first draft my characters tend to sound the same so on the second draft, as they have come more to life I try to make their voice and vocabulary more unique. This is a great list to help with that second draft.
Great. You made my day, Stephen. I often go back and add “attitude” or color or humor to my characters in drafts oe layers. Have fun.
They guessed right for me. Ohio. I try and research the slang in the areas I’m writing about.
Wow. First right guess. My husband is from Cleveland area. Very distinctive word use there.
Great post and an absolute yes on getting the regionals right. Hitting the hivemind on Facebook or Twitter is a great help because odds are you know someone from the region you are asking about.
I have started near-nuclear flame wars on the subject of “soda” versus “pop.” That is a ginormous regional indicator (it’s “soda” dammit.)
My hero shreds his food when he is trying to buy time. The banana muffins gets the worst of it in one scene and my heroine is one of those who gets ballistic when things in her personal space have been moved. That tic serves her well later on in the book, but causes so much trouble early on that she has to stop and do the “why is this important, this isn’t important, calm down” thing before she lets somebody have it.
I LOVE this part.
Ha! Fun, Terri. Yes, it was soda for me too.
Sounds like you know how to layer attitude into your characters. Fun!!!!