Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Creating Distinct Character Voices

Creating unique voices for your characters can often be difficult. Each of us has our own voice, after all—our own habits and styles and mannerisms of speech—and it can be hard to set aside our own self and attempt to speak like someone else. Even when you manage that, you’re likely to need several different character voices for any given story, which just further complicates things.

So in an effort to help you create distinct and engaging voices for your characters, I’ve isolated some of the factors that make up a unique voice.


What sort of words does this character use? Do they use the shortest, simplest word possible, or do they use large, grandiloquent words, or are they somewhere in between? Vocabulary will often be a reflection of how educated and well-read your character is, but it can also reflect their humility. Perhaps they have a very large vocabulary but prefer to speak simply. Or maybe they use large words to show off how intelligent they are (and maybe they’re not as well-read as they obviously think they are).


How much does this character talk? Are they the strong silent type, the shy silent type, or the easily-cowed silent type? Are they fond of lecturing at length, of gossiping about anything and everything, or of being the center of attention? Talkativeness can be a useful tool for character building. If your character doesn’t talk much, what does get them to talk? What breaks through that shell? What do they enjoy discussing? On the other hand, if your character is self-absorbed and constantly talking, what would actually get them to shut up? What could leave them speechless?

Part of talkativeness is nervousness. How comfortable is this character with unexpected discussion? How about being asked to give a speech or simply tell a story? Do they stutter and lose their way when they are nervous? Or do they ramble and speak too much? If they are nervous speakers, what topics do they know well enough to always be comfortable with? If they’re not usually nervous, what topic does make them uncomfortable?


Some people are always serious, while others are almost always joking around. Most people are somewhere in between. Where does this character lie on that sliding scale? How do they compare to other characters in the story, and how does that affect their relationships with the other characters?  This can be used to show depth of character in much the same way as talkativeness: if your character is always serious, what can get them to loosen up and joke around? What don’t they take seriously, and why? If your character is irreverent and always joking, what actually gets them to sober up and be serious? What matters to them that much?


Some situations require greater formality than others. And some people do not speak or behave formally even in those situations. It might be because they don’t know how to behave in a formal, polite manner, or it might be because they refuse to. They might skip the “sirs” or “my lords” that other expect of them, or they might kick back and tell funny stories in a situation where no one else would.


How rough does this character’s language get? Some people never swear, and some people can’t seem to get through a complete sentence without cursing. If they swear, why do they swear? Are they perpetually angry? Or is it just how they grew up—a habit of speech with little to no emotion behind it? If they don’t swear, why not? Are they religious? Do they simply dislike it? Does it bother them when other people swear?

Beyond simple curse words, coarseness also encompasses subject matter—what topics does this character consider inappropriate for everyday conversation? Do they frequently make sexual and scatological jokes? Do they make dark, morbid jokes? Are they just flat-out immature? How do they react to people who would prefer that they reign in their coarseness? Do they tamp it down, or do they just get worse?


How easily does this character veer off of topic? Some people discuss one thing at a time without deviation. Other people will start discussing one topic, and then end up covering several other topics at length over the course of the conversation. Some people only do this in conversation—if they were lecturing or presenting to a group of people, they would have an easier time staying on topic. Other people would meander through various subjects no matter the situation.


What generally motivates this character’s speech? Are they highly emotional or very in control of their feelings? Are they more likely to appeal to logic in an argument or to emotion (possibly including threats, an appeal to fear)? Are they passionate and energetic or distant and thoughtful?

An excellent exercise is to take these various aspects and to rank some of your favorite characters in each—this way, you can see how their voice is built out of these traits. For example:

Firefly has one of the best arrays of unique character voices you’ll ever find in a story—creating character voices is one of Joss Whedon’s most impressive abilities. So let’s take a few of these characters and rank them in our categories:

Simon: High vocabulary, middle/low talkativeness (middle/high nervousness unless he is speaking on medical matters or defending his sister), high seriousness, high formality, low coarseness, middle/high focus, and mostly on the logical side of the scale (except on some occasions relating to his sister).

Kaylee: Middle/low vocabulary (unless she's discussing engines, in which case it spikes up high), middle/high talkativeness (low nervousness unless she’s trying to impress Simon), middle seriousness, low formality, middle/low coarseness, middle focus, and a little closer to emotion than logic.

Jayne: Low vocabulary, middle/low talkativeness (low nervousness most of the time), low seriousness, low formality, high coarseness, middle focus, and almost completely on the emotion side of the scale (made even more interesting by his low awareness of his emotions).

You can figure out the others on your own, or apply this scale to any other characters you love. Next time you’re stuck trying to create a distinct voice for a new (or old) character, pull out these scales. Figure out where each of your characters is on each scale, and then start sliding things around to create a little more variety.

You could probably come up with a few scales I haven't thought of—if you do, please let me know in the comments! I'd love to hear them. If we get enough, we may do another post on this.

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