What is meant by unique character voice?
A character’s voice is how they express themselves. So their uniqueness comes down to who they are: motivation, lived experience, and influences. That’s what it takes to create unique character voices, and it’s what most writers never think about.
We must think about our own characters not as talking heads, but as people with pasts, hidden motivations, and drives that propel them through our stories.
How to discover your own characters’ voices
Working with different levels of writers, I know that character voice is a hard topic to master and practice. A lot, I notice, comes down to the fact that writers can’t seem to tell if their characters sound different. I totally get it. How are writers supposed to hear their character’s voices if they happen within their own head?
Some writers who are stellar at it are so great because they can hear their characters as they talk. This is a unique gift that not everyone has. Like me, for one. I can’t really hear the characters in my head. I hear my voice in different inflections.
So I have to resort to different techniques that we’ll get into below. When talking about dialogue previously, I’ve mentioned that dialogue and the way characters speak is nothing like how we as real people speak. They speak like actors. All subtext and internal motivation battling with external forces.
Tackling character voice in your own fiction
The thing to remember about these techniques is that the purpose is to create character voices that are unique and dialogue that is not stale. But when it comes down to it, it’s up to you as the writer to find a method and system that works for you. Think about your intent and your character’s intent.
Save it for the content edit
Instead of bogging yourself down and worrying about how your characters speak during your first or even second draft, focus on getting your story out and understanding your characters. Then during your content edit, you can focus dedicatedly solely on your characters’ unique voices.
Read scripts to learn distinct voice
Guess what? Scripts are master classes in dialogue and studying distinctive voice. They are also a great tool to use when it comes to crafting lean stories with a lot of dialogue and action. Find a movie that you enjoy because of how unique and distinct the character’s sound. Search for the script online and study how the writers did it.
Copy work from literature
Copy work is rewriting passages and stories in order to learn the feeling of story. Find a book or story that you love. Pick a scene that’s heavy in dialogue and has more than one character. Rewrite the scene by hand or type it up. Pay attention to the sentence structure, the action framing, and word choice. Dissect, examine, and analyze the text while reading, writing, and reviewing.
Read outside your culture
Too often, writers stick to reading and learning from their own culture. It creates a hallow hall where nothing new or original can come out. By reading another culture’s stories, writers can learn how to frame and write voice in different ways.
Change the rhythm of each characters’ speech
The quickest way to distinguishing characters’ voices is by writing out what their dialogue. Then chopping it up and changing the rhythm so that the flow is different and unique to the character.
Change the sentence structure of each character
Like changing the rhythm of a character’s voice or dialogue, changing the sentence structure works for those writers who can’t read or see rhythm. Like me. I can sometimes pick up on distinct rhythms in speech, but when I can’t, I focus on changing the structure of the sentences.
Use the dialogue daisy wheel
This is a method that I learned from the Dialogue Doctor, who, like me, sees voice as a bigger picture than what many writers view. It all comes down to who the character is, what their motivations are, and how they interact with the world. To listen to the Dialogue Doctor break down his method, check out his podcast episode where he walks writers through the technique.
Act out your characters
When at a loss for how to find your character’s voices, try acting like your character. Let their image and idea embody you. Strut around like them and speak how they would. Write what you say or record it so that you can begin thinking about how they respond to the world and other characters. Pay close attention to word choices, inflections, slang, and catch phrases.
Have characters talk either figurative or literal
Like the Charles and Luther example, when it comes to designing your characters’ unique voices, you can make one or more speak either figurative or literal. A main character could fall into long-winded monologues that are teeming with poetry. Or they can be a short and soft-spoken literal person.
Read the dialogue out loud
This is better for later drafts or for people who edit while writing. After finishing a scene or even while writing it, speak the words. Say them how you think your characters would. How does it sound? Play test the dialogue of your characters to make them sound and behave differently.
On writing patois in an aware way
This is less of a technique and is more of a note about creating or using patois’ in your writing. There is a strong divide between people who think that writing out patois phonetically should be avoided and others who see it as an honest representation of a culture.
Whichever way you choose to write out marginalized characters’ patois should come down to not making them caricatures or stereotypes. If you start making a joke out of a culture’s way of speaking, you’ve done them dirty and are appropriate, making fun of, and generally being offensive toward someone else.
Create better fiction by learning and growing
When it comes to characters and voice, there is no argument. Unique, distinctive voice is what makes each character stand out. It’s what creates memorable lines and pulls readers in. To do that, we have to understand our characters motivations, lived experiences, and influences.
It is up to us as writers and creators to craft those voices that make our fictions sing. We can’t do that if we write in a tunnel and refuse to change. Let your writing live on the tip of your tongue and focus yourself. Learn and grow to become a better writer.
Aigner Loren Wilson is a queer Black SFWA, HWA, and Codex writer. Her work has appeared in Tordotcom, Better Humans, The Writing Cooperative, and more. She strives to help writers reach their publishing goals and attain their dreams. Subscribe for access to masterclass courses in writing, editing, and making a living as a writer.