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Say What?: Giving your characters their own unique voice

Think of the characters from your current work in progress. Are they all women (or men)? Do they all have blond hair? Did they all get a BA in English literature from an Ivy League university? Of course not. A book where every character was exactly the same would be boring and most of us would never even consider writing like that. (Unless it’s a sci-fi book where every person in town gets turned into a clone of the main character, but that’s another story.) And yet we frequently write books where all of our characters sound the same. It’s easy to see why. You created all of these characters and you talk a certain way, a way that was influenced by your upbringing and your education and your location. So when you start to write dialogue, it probably comes out sounding a lot like you. But if you want your story to be interesting, you’ll need to break out of your voice and create unique a voice for each of your characters.

Why does this matter? In addition to being more interesting, it’s more realistic. The next time you’re at a coffee shop, eavesdrop on the people around you (it’s not creepy if it’s professional development). You’re sure to pick up on a variety of speaking styles because your fellow coffee shop patrons all have different upbringings and careers, unique fears, and individual histories. This is true of your characters, as well, and they need to sound like it to feel real. Giving characters different ways of talking also lets you tell us a lot about them without having to spell it out. Do they sound confident or fearful? Are they a college graduate or a high school dropout? Are they a go-getter or a wait-and-seer? Chunks of description can get boring, so why not let your character’s speaking style do some of the heavy lifting? On a more technical level, easily identifiable speech patterns make it easier for readers to tell who is speaking without the use of lots of dialogue tags, and this allows your dialogue to flow without frequent interruptions.

So, now that I’ve convinced you to make your characters sound unique, how do you go about it? There are many facets of language that you can vary. Is their vocabulary full of four-syllable words or do they use simpler language? Do they speak in long sentences or short, clipped ones? What regional phrases could you give them that would make them stand out? For example, where I lived in northern Minnesota for many years, they used the phrase, “Oh, for cute!” when they found something to be adorable. I’d never heard it before and haven’t heard it since. All regions of the country have these little regionalisms that you could pepper in. You could also have one character curse while another sticks to gosh and golly, or have one use slang while another speaks like your third-grade English teacher. And there are many more ways to make your characters’ speech unique.

It’s always a good idea to write down for yourself everything that you know about your main characters, whether you choose to share this information with your readers or not. This is a good place to look to help you decide how your characters should speak. Choose words and a speaking style that match their history and their current life. Hopefully, you’ve given your characters these personality traits because they somehow serve the story. If so, the way they speak will serve it too.

It takes extra effort to ensure that your characters speak like themselves and not like you or each other, but it is definitely worth it. It will make your story feel more authentic and your characters more genuine, which makes it easier for readers to get lost in the world you’ve created.

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