I swear there’s something about this time of the year that always ends up with me catching some kind of upper respiratory thing. I’ve got some kind of fever thing going on right now, so no promises that this is going to be a phenomenal blog post. That being said, I’m going to continue my series on character creation, focusing on how to find and keep your character voice consistent.
Character voice is one of those traits that isn’t always easy to define. Voice is specific thought and speech patterns that a character expresses. Voice can be found in all tenses and points of view, but it’s generally most discussed when you talk about first-person narration or when talking about the author’s writing style. For the sake of this post, I’ll be focusing on first-person, but I recommend looking through some of your favorite third-person stories or novels and trying to identify the character’s voice.
So why is character voice important? In general, character voice is the biggest tool you’ll have when writing to distinguish your characters from each other and to also share more about a character’s personality. Let’s take two statements from a character and compare them.
How do you do?
Just looking at these two statements, it’s easy to tell that they’re not being said by the same person. Imagine what the first character looks like compared to the second. Are they the same age? Do they share similar backgrounds or different ones? Where did they grow up? Can you get a sense of the time that they live in from their speech? Ideally, yes. The way that people speak varies on their education background, their gender, their location, and a whole mess of other things.
Going off of what we talked about in the last post about characters, you want to consider your character’s background and start thinking about how that would impact their speech patterns. I’ll use Kim Phillips, the main character of The Affinity Series, as an example, and then contrast her with Priya Rachamalla, her ghost partner.
Kim grew up in Chicago, so she’s going to use speech patterns common to that area. The Chicago dialect tends to be more phonetic than vocabulary based, but there are specific words and phrases that are common in Chicago. Chicagoans tend to end sentences with prepositions. They use specific names for major interstates and interchanges in the city. Buildings are called by their old names, rather than their new ones. For example, the White Sox play at Comiskey Park, not US Cellular or Guaranteed Rate Field (even though that’s the name on the building). So when Kim speaks and thinks – Burner is in first-person POV – she speaks and thinks with these regional characteristics.
Her personality also defines her speech patterns. She’s a loner, not big on people, and tends to be rather brusque. That means that she’s not going to spend a lot of time with flowery language. Kim’s also not much of a thinker, in the sense that she’s not big on reading books or studying, so she doesn’t use overly complicated language. Whenever you’re building a character, you need to think about how their background and personality are going to impact their speech patterns. If Kim spoke like a person from the southern US, it would throw off the story because she was born and raised in Chicago. It just doesn’t fit right. It’s also worth noting that sometimes people switch their speech patterns
It’s also worth noting that sometimes people switch their speech patterns. Drastic changes in environment, location, or social position can cause people to speak differently. Key and Peele play up this idea in Keanu, where their characters go from speaking like middle-class white people to gangsters when interacting with the gang they fall in with, then switching back once they start interacting with the people from their normal day-to-day lives. If you want to do this, be careful with it. There’s a fine line between realism and stereotype, especially when it comes to speech, so make sure you’re not going too far with code-switching.
Once you find your character’s voice, you have to make sure to keep it consistent. This is probably the hardest part about writing a character. Even though characters should change and grow throughout the course of a novel, they’re still going to be the same at the core. The way they speak may change slightly, but it should stay true to certain traits, such as where they grew up if that area is known for a regional dialect. If you allow your character’s voice to shift too much, you’re going to struggle to keep them consistent. The other reason to keep your character’s voice consistent and distinct is to create a difference between your characters. If everyone in your novel speaks the same way, it’s going to be hard for your readers to keep them straight during extended dialog scenes. Let me show you what I mean by looking at only the dialog in one of the early scenes in Burner.
“Look, you’re kind of overreacting here. I just want to talk. I know you’re mad. That’s understandable. No one likes being murdered. But you’ve got to calm down. Okay, fine. If that’s how you want to play, that’s how we’ll play. Priya, a little help would be nice.”
“Kim, I don’t know that I can help here. She doesn’t seem to want outside help at the moment.”
“I get that, but I can’t keep the shield up and get her to stop.”
“I can maintain it, but not for very long. Be quick.”
This is a slightly modified exchange between Kim and Priya. Kim’s language is short, to the point, and doesn’t use a lot of frilly words. Priya tends to hedge her words more often and has a wider vocabulary than Kim. Note that the two have clear voices, where you can tell who’s speaking without dialog tags. You want your character’s voices to be like this, where they’re easily distinguished from each other. Whenever I write dialog, I tend to just write what the characters are saying during my first pass. I don’t add dialog tags or actions unless absolutely necessary. This forces me to be clear with the character’s voices before I start clarifying with tags and actions.
So, what have we learned? Who your character is influences how they speak. Study the places, times, and economic niches your characters are from. Consider how those characteristics can change their speech patterns and word choices. Once you make those determinations, stick with those decisions and make sure character’s voices are consistent. Keep your character’s easy to tell apart from their speech.
In the next post I make about characters, we’ll talk about how character motivation can impact and direct your plotlines. We’ll also talk about how to handle a character who’s taking you in a different direction than what you originally intended.
I hope you guys all have a great weekend. I’ll see you on Sunday for our weekly status update, and then on Monday for a regular post.