Character voice is a hard thing to write, especially for novelists.
Screenwriters get to rely on the actors' voices and facial movements. But if you're writing a novel, you can only use use mere words to make your characters feel real.
The good news?
When you figure out how to write distinct voices, you will be able to create amazing characters who are...
- Verbally fascinating
- Memorable and distinct
- And easier to visualize against other characters
...and masters of writing dialogue are able to create magical, UNIQUE voices across hundreds of characters. I'll show you how they do it:
How is Voice Different from Dialogue?
In his excellent course on MasterClass, the legendary playwright David Mamet says:
All good dialogue happens because a character wants a result.
You can use almost anything to motivate your characters:
- A desire for change
- A need for help
- Or simply to make another character feel something
Good dialogue almost never exists solely for the purpose of “self-expression.” It simply isn’t interesting to read characters who talk about how they feel... unless there is an underlying subtext, a desire for results.
So if dialogue is a tool characters use to get a result...
...voice is how characters wield dialogue.
It's the difference between two characters saying, "Would you please keep the noise down?" and "Be quiet or I'm going to stab both of your eyes with a fork."
One desired result. Two completely different character voices.
David Mamet helped write classics like Hannibal and Glengarry Glen Ross, and now he has a course on Masterclass. I took it recently, and it was amazing. He talked about how to create intense, conflict-rich scenes with your characters.
I strongly recommend you look at his excellent course on MasterClass.
Two Kinds of Character Voice
All characters have two kinds of voices: internal & external.
Internal voice is everything your characters think, but don’t say.
Most internal voice will only appear in first-person and limited third person, because the narrative closely follows the main character... so we get to hear what's going on in their head.
Internal voice is almost exclusive to novels and written forms of storytelling. It's our little super power - screenwriters don't get to use internal voice like we do.
External voice is how your characters actually speak to others. It includes elements like:
- Word choice
- Dialect and language
- And, if you're good at writing dialogue, emotional subtext (what is meant, but goes unspoken)
How Do You Come Up with Different Voices?
The hardest part about writing unique voices is hearing them first. Most authors combine these three techniques to find their characters' voices:
- Real-world experience
- Inspiration from your favorite characters or archetypes
- Working through the process by, you know, actually writing
So if you need to find voices, go watch some classic movies. Or head to a coffee shop, and eavesdrop (without being creepy) on people in line. And yes, play with the voices. They'll come to you.
Fair warning: while you work on this, your head will fill up with voices that aren't yours. Have fun. Don't go crazy...
Before we move on, watch this short clip:
Rhythm, Diction, and Length
Diction: what words do they use?
Your characters’ word choice will depend on a lot of things:
- Emotional state
- Culture or education
- Age, Gender, Race, etc.
Wor choice will also depend on who your character is talking to.
Take the example from Good Will Hunting above. When the snobby grad student realizes he’s not dealing with your average high school dropout, his diction changes from “I must outsmart them” to a more colloquial “Nah, man, we’re cool.”
He realizes that he's probably out of his depth, and he wants to de-escalate the engagement, so he can turn and run.
Remember... the goal is to make your characters sound interesting. There’s no point in making them use different words for difference sake. Dig into your character's past, and make your dialogue rich with emotional conflict.
Here’s a quick example of powerful diction from Shakespeare:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”
Can you imagine who this character is talking to? It paints an emotional visual on word choice alone:
- The Valiant
Rhythm: how do their words flow together?
Some people bounce their words around...
Some people whisper and soothe like curling smoke...
...and some people will blast you with a fire hose of non-stop HI HOW ARE YOU GOOD TO MEET YOU BOY THE WEATHER'S LOOKING-
Here's a better example of rhythm from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:
“Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing.”
Rhythm gives you a flavor for your characters. Even if two of your characters share the same diction, their rhythm can distinguish them from each other.
Style of Speech: what do they sound like?
- Are they prone to flowing sentences or clipped, gruff words?
- Do they dramatize or do they speak with mechanical precision?
- Do they whisper or squawk or growl or shout through a thick Boston accent?
Quick writing tip: don’t be afraid to exaggerate your character’s voice in the beginning. It is always easier to cut or pull back than it is to add.
Psychology and Morals
Who is your character? How do they deal with their current situation?
Your characters' psychological experiences and moral compass will determine what they’re willing to say.
- Emotional state - nervous vs. boisterous vs. bored?
- Agreeableness - are friendly or prickly?
- Social Skills - are they a master manipulator or a naive new-comer?
For example, watch this clip:
In this scene from The Social Network, Zuckerberg is disagreeable, bored, and smart enough to know that he can say whatever he wants and get away with it.
What he’s willing to say sets his voice apart from the other smart characters in the film… because who else could get away with being that insufferable?
Character Voices in Arcs
Ernest Hemingway, a master of writing dialogue, had this advice for writers:
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
Your heroes and other important characters will change over the course of your story.
As they grow, their voice might change too. Ask your characters these questions at the end of their arc:
- What are you no longer willing to joke about?
- What have you learned not to say, because it might be hurtful?
- Have your new scars made them more or less empathetic to others?
- What new outlook on your life, and others, did you gain from this experience?
...and if you’re looking for an example of how that character’s voice changes, I want to recommend a few books to you:
- The Goblin Emperor (This is a great, new fantasy novel about a boy who becomes emperor on accident)
- Or go watch Star Wars Episode 4-6 and watch how Luke changes from a whiny teen to a master of the Jedi Philosophy
One Amazing “Voice Writing” Trick
Here's a common question you should think about when writing dialogue:
“Who is your character talking to?”
Because you will a different voice when you’re talking to:
- your parents…
- your best friend…
- ...or that one colleague/work rival who you can’t stand.
And so will your characters. But here’s a more interesting question:
“When your character speaks, who do they think they are talking to?”
This question opens up new ways to think about what your character wants… and what their status is in relation to others. It may be vastly different than what they believe...
Consider the scene from The Social Network - or this scene from Mad Men:
Conclusion | How to Keep Improving Your Characters’ Voices
Do all your characters sound the same?
If so, work on it. Bland, monochromatic characters will drive your readers away. It makes the dialogue stale and hard to follow - when dialogue should be rapid-fire and intense.
With these strategies, you’ll be able to find, dissect, and recreate amazing character voices.
Quick Writing Exercise
Find a public place, and don’t put in your headphones.
Instead, listen to the most intense conversation near you. Focus on the rhythm and the emotional language laced in the conversation.
Then, take that conversation and exaggerate it. Turn it into a brief scene, but only write the dialogue. No names, no dialogue tags.
Your goal is to establish two (or more) unique voices and sustain it for as long as possible.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Related Post: 13 Shortcuts to Writing Brilliant Characters