Category Archive: Characters

Give your character that unique voice by letting her speak from the heart

VOICEsmall2“Should every character have such a distinctive voice that if one line is taken out of context, the reader will immediately know who said it?”

Indeed. But how to achieve this? How should I make each character’s voice stand apart?

The fellow scribe who sent me this question online struggled to create a different lingo for each of her characters: different slang, different regionalisms. This can actually work. Here’s Huck Finn:

“‘Quick, Jim, it ain’t no time for fooling around and moaning; there’s a gang of murderers in yonder, and if we don’t hunt up their boat and set her drifting down the river so these fellows can’t get away from the wreck, there’s one of ’em going to be in a bad fix. But if we find their boat we can put all of ’em in a bad fix – for the Sheriff’ll get ’em.'”

We identify Huck with his dialect, it makes a place for him in our memories.

 

“Should every character have such a distinctive voice that if one line is taken out of context, the reader will immediately know who said it?”

 

In addition, a character may speak in an elevated way:

From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth… Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain side… Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time… The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age of the earth… But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I’ve been sent back until my task is done.

~Gandalf the Grey

Or low:

It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

~Samwise

Note that low speech does not always mean lacking in eloquence. Just have a look at the example above.

However, you will find the true secret to voice, one which goes beyond surface detail, is motivation and character. If your characters each have different distinguishing motivations and reactions, this will emerge in what they say, and almost any line will bear the stamp of this persona.

Just to get an example most folks are familiar with, let’s consider the movie Star Wars (1977). Which character says each of the following lines?

  • “We’re doomed!”
  • “No reward is worth this!”
  • “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”
  • “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you.”
  • “She’s beautiful!”
  • “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
  • (I will leave Chewbacca and R2-D2 off the list.)

If you know the characters, you have no trouble picking out who said what.

 

If your characters each have different motivations, this will emerge in what they say, and any line will bear the stamp of this persona.

 

But you can pick anything, like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be,” or Tybalt: “Peace! I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. Have at thee, coward!” Who else could have uttered these?

The same goes for characters that do have a distinctive way of speaking. Their personalities must also shine through in virtually every line. Here’s Huck again:

“What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”

Rather than thinking of personalized dialogue as a different code of speech for each character, better to think of it as a reflection of the soul.

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