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Distinctive Character Voices

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I've always been pretty concerned with writing distinctive, authentic voices for my characters, but lately I think it's become a bit of a paranoid stumbling block for me that has stalled out what little bit of writing I finally got started this month.

 

I remember asking beta readers something like... "Without chapter POV markers, could you read a few paragraphs and tell by the voice which character's perspective it is?"

 

Maybe it's because I haven't written in so long, but once I got started writing this month and got about 3000 words in, I started to feel like the character voice wasn't distinctive. That it was just... me.

 

So three questions:

 

1. How do you feel about character voice in writing?

2. Do you remember any distinctive voices you've read and enjoyed before?

3. Any tips or tricks for creating or writing a distinct voice?

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1. How do you feel about character voice in writing?

2. Do you remember any distinctive voices you've read and enjoyed before?

3. Any tips or tricks for creating or writing a distinct voice?

 

I am a fan of character voice. For me, characters are fairly real, like imaginary friends. I have to get into the mindset of the character, see the world as they do - in effect, I need to be them - before I can usefully write as them. For some reason - perhaps I am easily-manipulated or something - this seems to be fairly straightforward for me. I am greatly affected by the moods, characteristics, and so on, of others.

 

For distinctive voices, one of my favourites was Lyra from His Dark Materials, and primarily the first book, the Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) I just thought her personality was great. That's what voice is, to me - the personality of the character coming out in the writing. I think the best tip would be to simply be around such a person - be it via reading or in actual fact, and try and let yourself pick up on some of what makes them unique.

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My tips come from a Writing excuses podcast, I can dig up the link if anyone is interested. The points they made for a distinct voice of an individual character (as opposed to authorial voice), so to carefully consider word choice and sentence structure for each character. Someone with a classical education might reference a famous play and use longer words, while a more rough around the edges character might use shorter ones, and use different slang.

 

I can't think of distinct voices off the top of my head... Oh actually, the wheel of time. Its a bit more generalized, but people from different countries had different swear words and speech patterns. It bordered on stereotypings its own countries at times, but it was distinct.

 

Its not something I'm worrying about consciously as I write. I'm hoping it kind of falls into place as I get the character personalities to show through. I can always change things up in the next draft once I know the characters better.

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1.  I love characters who have a distinct voice, but that doesn't need to be stylistic; different worldviews and ways of interpreting what they're seeing are good too.  If I may use an example from my own writing, I've realised you can tell when I'm writing a Shynilus-centred piece because there's a lot of description of the environment, but most characters lose out on physical descriptions.  Jessica, almost the complete opposite, plus a lot more on physical sensations. That's just the kind of people they are.

 

2.  Pretty much all of Laini Taylor's characters.

 

3.  For me it's all about living in that character's head, thinking as they'd think.

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For distinctive voices, one of my favourites was Lyra from His Dark Materials, and primarily the first book, the Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) I just thought her personality was great.

 

Ooh I love Lyra, good choice! And I'm somewhat jealous of your tendency to be influenced by those around you. I'm not very observant, in that way, which is perhaps part of my struggle. You know how some people are good at imitating others? There are many instances of me not noticing a person's particular quirks and tendencies until I watch someone imitate them.

 

My tips come from a Writing excuses podcast, I can dig up the link if anyone is interested. The points they made for a distinct voice of an individual character (as opposed to authorial voice), so to carefully consider word choice and sentence structure for each character. Someone with a classical education might reference a famous play and use longer words, while a more rough around the edges character might use shorter ones, and use different slang.

 

I would be interested if it's not too much bother, but no pressure! Your summary of their points are good habits I think I once had but lost track of in my time off from writing.

 

1.  I love characters who have a distinct voice, but that doesn't need to be stylistic; different worldviews and ways of interpreting what they're seeing are good too.  If I may use an example from my own writing, I've realised you can tell when I'm writing a Shynilus-centred piece because there's a lot of description of the environment, but most characters lose out on physical descriptions.  Jessica, almost the complete opposite, plus a lot more on physical sensations. That's just the kind of people they are.

 

True, and you know, when I last worked on my big story I did keep a lot of that in mind. I even made notes in a document of quirks particular to each character. I've never heard of Laini Taylor, though; I'll have to check her(?) work out.

 

I guess what I'm gathering so far is that I at least used to have a grasp on how to do this! I suppose I just need to slog forward and get back into it.

 

I do find it interesting that everyone seemed to mostly go to third person work. I think part of me really wants to write first person, but is more anxious about getting voice right in that format. Hm.

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You're not the only one struggling here.  I'm terrible at voice.  But I've always attributed that to the fact that I've never finished a story.  Usually I'm in the stage of just getting everything in one place so I have a beginning, middle, and end.  Until I know exactly what world/characters I'm dealing with, I don't try to make the characters 'sound' distinct as long as their personalities and goals are distinct.  But I do know that, whenever I restart a story, the characters often 'sound' a little more unique each time.

 

I think the other problem I have stems from the fact that I can already 'hear' their voices in my head, but I don't know how to translate that into the written word.  Because they already have a set voice in my head, I don't have as strong a feel for their word choice as the sole means by which their voice is represented.

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I think the other problem I have stems from the fact that I can already 'hear' their voices in my head, but I don't know how to translate that into the written word.  Because they already have a set voice in my head, I don't have as strong a feel for their word choice as the sole means by which their voice is represented.

 

Oh, interesting! Initially that sounds like something that would help with getting that distinct voice down; it sucks that it makes things harder for you.

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Quote from: Mynoris on November 14, 2018, 11:22:41 PM

 

    "I think the other problem I have stems from the fact that I can already 'hear' their voices in my head, but I don't know how to translate that into the written word.  Because they already have a set voice in my head, I don't have as strong a feel for their word choice as the sole means by which their voice is represented."

 

 

Oh, interesting! Initially that sounds like something that would help with getting that distinct voice down; it sucks that it makes things harder for you.

 

I wonder if you could use body language, and narrated text (as opposed to dialogue) to really convey via as many senses as possible the fundamental personality of a character. Have them use their hands, their eyes, their body, their interactions with the world, their perceptions, to express themselves.

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1. How do you feel about character voice in writing?

My character voice skills are so shameful and disgraceful, a child would cry after reading it.

 

2. Do you remember any distinctive voices you've read and enjoyed before?

I'm not sure if it's me, or not, but when I read a book, especially within the fantasy genre, I find distinctive voices difficult to pinpoint. It's like a lost art. One of those things that slip through the cracks. The most distinctive voice I have enjoyed so far, however, is Hiccup from the How to Train Your Dragon books AND the movies/television show.

 

3. Any tips or tricks for creating or writing a distinct voice?

From what I gather, character voice is distinctive through a few factors: (a) How a character forms sentences, (b) how that differs from other characters, and (3)  how  a character's personality shines through dialogue. For example, Hiccup is very sarcastic and sassy. This is obvious when he says the following: "Tah-ta-dah, we're dead", "Thank you for nothing, you useless reptile",  and"Pain...love it."

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Oh cool, I didn't know that there are How to Train Your Dragon books! And you're right, Hiccup is quite distinctive. Those are helpful examples, thank you!

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1. How do you feel about character voice in writing?

To me it's super-important, and I always try to get better at writing character voices. The most interesting thing in a book for me their voice, that's how they show who they are and also who they want to be. What comes through the cracks in their social mask (like personality traits they want to hide, but can't) can make a character stand out a lot. To me, a character voice is a part of the character puzzle, so finding out or deducing why they talk the way they do is an extra piece of entertainment. If the psychological underpinnings of their speech has a greater meaning when it comes to character or plot, that's awesome.

 

2. Do you remember any distinctive voices you've read and enjoyed before?

Gytha Ogg (from Terry Pratchett's Lancre-books) is freakin' hilarious and her speech is in tune with her character and interests. Pippi Longstocking is one unique kid and her speech is very inventive. Bertie Wooster (Wodehouse) is a definite favourite when it comes to character voice. His optimism and desire to be thought of as clever and a man of action puts him in a lot of trouble, and these are also things that comes out in his speech. 

 

3. Any tips or tricks for creating or writing a distinct voice?

I have a few tricks: 

Based on the character's personality or interests, they notice different things in an environment. The Casanova comments on the attractive person behind one of the counters, the lazy always calculate the easiest way to do something, the animal lover points out the painting of a dog on the wall, etc.

Interests can inspire word-choice: the foodie may make jokes and use words/sayings connected to food/cooking, etc.

People often circle back to the important things in their life during conversation (children, pets, old job, hobbies, obsessions, etc.).

Rooting around in their background can also work for finding a voice. If they have younger siblings, maybe they have the educational mom-voice. Were they the younger sibling? Maybe they don't listen to others anymore, or if they had a lot of siblings they're used to fight to be heard and say stuff for attention. Our social circles growing up have huge influence on us, so it's a good thing to use.    

I'm not above putting big labels on a character to separate them from others. The person who thinks sarcasm is the height of sophistication will be easily recognized in dialogue without tags. Same with the self-appointed comedian, the optimist, the bragger, the complainer, the coward, the adventurer, the intellectual, etc. Those big labels can be part of their social mask, or be the things they can't hide (like being scared or unsatisfied). It will hopefully blend in with other stuff later to become just one facet of them instead of stereotypical, but it's definitely an easy way to create distinct voices. Hermione and Ron in "Harry Potter" are two examples of characters that are distinguishable in dialogue due to their clear (and opposite) labels: The bossy know-it-all and the swearing slacker. It's not all they are, but that really helped to cement them and to separate them.

The way characters react to each other's speech is also a good trick. If someone comments "you swear a lot for such a young girl", that sticks in the reader's mind for easy recognition next time.   

(I also wanna add, for any beginners reading this, that distinct character voices might not come out properly until the first draft of the story is done, and may be crafted during editing instead. So my advice is to not sweat the character voice too much early on, especially if you write novels and use exploration as part of the writing process. At least that's my experience.)

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Character voice is important to me both when writing and reading.  I'm very character oriented, so I want to hitch a ride with a character whose personality is both distinct and easy to access.  That's why I end up writing in first person so much.  I can get to the heart and soul of a character much quicker if they're telling me the story in their own words.  I do use third person sometimes, but not as much, though I have no trouble reading it so long as the characters followed have easily definable personalities and voices.  For me, character voice makes or breaks a story.  A character can go out and conquer a country with nothing but a rusty spoon and an ill-tempered ferret or they could go to a coffee shop and snark with the barista they secretly crush on, I don't care which, as long as their voice is identifiable and engaging enough to keep me interested.

The best distinctive voice that comes to mind is Miriam Black from the Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig.  She's not the kind of character you get to read too often.  Abrasive, raw, self centered due to survival instincts, getting dirty because dirty gets stuff done, etc.  She has the gift to see the details of someone's death when she touches them.  She turns this horrible gift to her advantage by writing down what she sees and showing up when it happens to pick the money off the deceased.  She's a great example of a character who isn't nice or morally right, but who is a full human being with a horrible history she's used to keep herself alive at any cost.  It's hard for me to read those books, I have to be in the right frame of mind due to some of the subject matter, but if I closed my eyes and picked up a random page from a book to read, I would know her voice within the first few sentences.  Scarlett O'Hara is another.  I absolutely detested Gone With The Wind because of her, but her voice was another distinctive one that sticks with me.

As far as tips or tricks, the only one I have is to get to know your character.  Write tons of stuff from their perspective, even if it changes or never makes it into the official story.  I've spent ten years with the current set of characters I'm now getting to publish and though their backstories, world, and relationships have changed completely they still have their own voices.   One way I like to practice is to just write dialogue.  Nothing else, no tags, actions, or descriptions.  It's like sitting in a cafe with your back to everyone and just listening to who is talking.  What kinds of words and inflections do they use?  Are they shy or boisterous?  Do they butt in or let someone else finish?  Do they cuss or use clean replacement cuss words?  Are they sarcastic?  Serious?  Do they get humor or take everything literally?  What slang do they use, or do they keep their speech professional, or academic?  Have fun with it.  Experiment.  The more I do it the more I learn about the character, and it makes slipping into their heads much easier.

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On 11/14/2018 at 4:39 PM, bdcharles said:

For me, characters are fairly real, like imaginary friends. I have to get into the mindset of the character, see the world as they do - in effect, I need to be them - before I can usefully write as them. For some reason - perhaps I am easily-manipulated or something - this seems to be fairly straightforward for me. I am greatly affected by the moods, characteristics, and so on, of others.

 

18 minutes ago, TricksterShi said:

Character voice is important to me both when writing and reading.  I'm very character oriented, so I want to hitch a ride with a character whose personality is both distinct and easy to access.  That's why I end up writing in first person so much.  I can get to the heart and soul of a character much quicker if they're telling me the story in their own words.

This is just like me on both accounts. My writing is very character driven and at least in my own head every character I have written sounds different. Sevastyan always comes across as angry and his actions are snappy, whereas Jascha is the opposite, he's laid back, has little sense of urgency unless it's serious, and he's all smiles (so in theory I have his Greekness right there 😛 ) and of course, I have the sweary grumpy stompy mess which is Sarett. I know her best, and she approaches with a half glass empty mindset.

 

1. How do you feel about character voice in writing?

Tres tres important in my writing, it's the main essence and something I think comes somewhat naturally to me? I'm not sure, people comment sometimes but I don't know tbh. I need an outside opinion 😛 although I think in other writing it's important to me too, because I really connect with it.

 

2. Do you remember any distinctive voices you've read and enjoyed before?

My favourite Jay Kristoff is great at character voices, he even managed it via chat logs and I love it

 

3. Any tips or tricks for creating or writing a distinct voice?

It's all about the stresses, where the words go as well as punctuation. Do they speak in long sentences or short and sharp? Get the nuances of how they think too. AND editing can reveal a lot of voice too, so don't worry if you don't get it straight away.

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Character voices are important to me.  I have been told I'm good at them.  

On 11/14/2018 at 1:28 PM, Raiynagh said:

1.  I love characters who have a distinct voice, but that doesn't need to be stylistic; different worldviews and ways of interpreting what they're seeing are good too. 

But I really want to reiterate this.  Two brothers (for example), stylistically are likely to sound very similar.  Same culture, same economic background, same upbringing, and probably the same or similar social groups. But their distinct personality will come out in the way they talk.  That's good enough.  You don't have to give them verbal ticks just so nobody mixes them up ever.  

And now I will wander off into some vaguely related anecdote.  :)

I remember I was working on a graphic novel, and I felt space-constrained in a way that I never had when writing novels.  I worried if that would erode the "voice" of my characters.  And then a bit character called out to one of the two major characters I was currently working with, and my major character answered "Yeah, what?"  And I realized that no matter how space constrained I might be, the other major character would never, ever, answer "Yeah, what?" if someone called his name.  Never.  "Yes." or "Yes, what is it?" or "Is something wrong?" but not "Yeah, what?"

So I stopped worrying about it. :)

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