Six impossible things

Sounding Very Different

Characters, like people, are different from each other. They are different ages and genders; they come from different countries and levels of society; sometimes they even speak different languages, at least as their native tongues. This being so, they should by rights sound different from one another. Theoretically, they should sound different in ways that make sense, given all the other ways they differ, but let’s take one thing at a time.

Many writers – me included – start off with all their characters sounding the same. In some cases, the characters even use the same syntax, sentence structure, and vocabulary as the narrator, which really sounds odd unless the story is first-person, and even then it can be something of a stretch. I am perfectly all right with a first-person narrator saying something like “We spent five long, boring days waiting out the blizzard, while our supplies dwindled and our tempers frayed,” but if he/she is actually describing the experience to someone in dialog, I usually expect shorter sentences, more informal word choice, and a more personal reaction: “The blizzard lasted five days. I was so bored I was ready to shoot someone, and we almost ran out of supplies.”

The first step in giving characters their own unique voices is often to go for radically different conversational styles, or to assign one character or another a signature verbal tic, like never using contractions, using lots of jargon and slang, or frequently using an unusual word order. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars can figure out who said “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not,” even if they don’t remember which movie or under what circumstances.

This kind of thing can work well when one has a cast of characters who are supposed to be very different. If your main character is the lone Earth-type human in a group consisting of six aliens, each of whom is a different species from a different planet, giving each character a radically different speaking style not only makes sense in terms of worldbuilding, it also serves as a reminder to your readers that these beings aren’t all from the same place. The main things to watch out for here are 1) making sure that whatever identifying verbal trait you assign to each character is distinct and different, 2) keeping that trait consistent throughout the story, and 3) being sure that the dialog will remain easy to understand in spite of whatever twists you are giving the characters.

#3 is easy to overlook, especially if you assign your verbal tics in advance, or when only two of the characters are having a discussion. Something that works when A is talking to B may turn out to be incomprehensible when B is talking to C, or when there are more than three characters involved in a conversation. It’s particularly awful if you have six or seven characters who have been talking in twos and threes for twenty chapters, and then suddenly they are all together in the same scene and you realize with horror that the discussion is impossible to follow without labeling each and every line. Which leaves you the choice of making it obvious that you didn’t think your dialog choices through (by leaving the scene as-is), or splitting up the discussion so that the characters never, ever have to have a conversation all at the same time (which may not be possible), or figuring out some other speech tics that do work in a multi-character conversation and then doing a massive rewrite (which always leaves one feeling uncomfortable, because by Chapter Twenty, one has gotten comfortable with those characters and the way they sound, and no matter how necessary it is to make the changes, they won’t sound right after that much time).

Most of the time, though, one isn’t writing about six characters who are each a different species. When the characters have more in common, their speech patterns will also have more in common. However, even if you have two people from the same family, they won’t sound exactly alike. Personality makes a difference. I sound a lot like my sisters…but not identical, and the differences have grown more pronounced over the years as we’ve had different life experiences.

These kinds of more subtle differences in dialog patterns are harder to get a handle on (at least, they were for me). I will take a crack at them in the next post.

6 Comments
  1. Ah – craft! This is one of those advanced topics everyone seems to leave ‘as an exercise for the student’ – because it is HARD.

    The visual media have an advantage – no way would a sighted person mistake Han Solo for Chewbacca – even before either said a word/sound. I think you could almost switch their lines – and it would still make some sort of sense because our brains are overwhelmingly visual.

    But if you don’t sort it out, the reader can get confused – and won’t be able to move on. I even have a few sections of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night where I get lost, still, after many readings. I’ve given up on them.

    Add to that that you don’t want to use names all the time in descriptions or attributions, and you have a major problem.

    It takes careful work. It takes listening to what you wrote. And it takes a reader who is willing to beta it for you and tell you they are confused.

    There IS no easy answer – just a lot of bad examples. I think the place to look is in successful commercial fiction of your genre – to see how the big boys and girls do it.

    If anyone knows of a book that does that – examines the successes in crowd-handling – I would love to know of it.

    • “The visual media have an advantage – no way would a sighted person mistake Han Solo for Chewbacca …”

      But that is an extreme example. It can go the other way. I have been reading two on-line stories. (OK, I read lots of them, but I am using two for examples.)

      One is “Red String” (http://www.redstring.strawberrycomics.com/). The characters being Japanese, they are rather more similar in appearance than a similar collection of gaijin. Add to that the artist’s technique of changing shading (in the middle of a sequence of related panels), it can be hard to keep track. Maybe a lampshade: at one point, someone does not recognise the main character, because she changed her hair colour. There are long sections where she is blonde and long sections where she is black-haired; the hair colour has plot relevance.

      Another is “Fragile” (http://www.fragilestory.com/). It has similar issues. I got some of the characters confused and am going to have to reread. Two of the main characters being twin sisters did not help.

  2. I’m not sure I did this very well in my WIP; there are several characters who have distinctive speech patterns, but for some reason they’re all secondary or minor. I don’t think the heroine and hero came out sounding as different from each other as they should.

  3. One of the difficulties I was having with a recent novella was consistency in the voice of the young protagonist. For whatever reason, I had no trouble making his internal voice consistently that of an eleven year old, but his dialogue was all over the map in terms of how old/mature he sounded.

    My solution was to pull out all his speaking lines and put them in a separate file and work there to make his speech patterns homogeneous. This wasn’t as easy as I hoped, because he used different speech patterns, depending on whether he was talking to a peer or an elder, but it was the best way I came up with to deal with the issue.

  4. With my current MS, almost all the characters are the same age (high school setting). What’s hard is the often teenagers sound similar because no one wants to be different. Even then though, personality traits make them say things/look at things differently.

  5. Giving characters different voices is something I’m very bad it, which is why I’m reading this. One thing that can work is stealing someone else’s character. In _Salamander_, my second novel, the female protagonist’s mother’s voice (and, to some extent, personality) is based on Peter Whimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver in the Sayers mysteries. In my first novel I gave my protagonist a very distinctive voice then made the mistake of using almost the same style for most of the other characters. In what I’m working on now, the sequel to _Salamander_, I am borrowing that voice and giving it to one character and perhaps one of his sons.

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