A character with a voice means more than having them participate in some
In her book Writing Vivid Characters, Rayne Hall lists the problem “My characters all talk alike.” She continues to explain that this happens because your characters sound like you. She says the same in another of her book in the same series, Writing Vivid Dialogue.
It is a problem that I’ve had for a long time, and every time I think of this problem my thoughts go to a fanfiction I’ve read, set in the One Piece-universe. What’s making me think of this fanfiction is the fact that the first part is only dialogue. And it has no speech-tags at all, it is all in the way the characters speak that makes you aware of who is talking. And that is what I wish to achieve with my characters, what a dream!
If you can take the dialogue from one character and use it for another without changing a word, you haven’t fully developed either.
One Piece is originally a manga, so it doesn’t have dialogue in the same way as a novel or a fanfiction, but the characters are well developed with their unique voices anyway. Eiichiro Oda has done a marvellous job with them!
So how do we give our characters a unique voice? I’m going to provide some examples here, which is far from everything, but at least a place to start.
There is a thin line between making catchphrases work, and causing them to fall flat. Overusing them is one thing that will make them lose their potential, another is forcing them. If done well, however, it can do wonders for your characters. These phrases can sometimes become inside jokes, and sometimes they are sober but still memorable.
Does the character really need a catchphrase? How will it help establish them as a character? Is the slogan deliberate or unconscious on the character’s part? Can it
There are different types of catchphrases used by different kinds of characters, and also in different situations.
Can be used to establish the origin of a character if they use words more common in a specific part of a country, or the world. It can also be slang from a fantasy-language to help set them apart more.
Using slang words can also be used to establish a timeframe, not only locations. I will talk more about this when talking about word choice.
- “Yabba dabba doo!”—Fred Flintstone (The Flintstones)
- “Bazinga!”—Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory)
- “Book ’em, Danno!”—Steve McGarrett (Hawaii Five-0)
Swears & exclamations
To show the difference in culture or religions, it can be a good idea to use custom exclamations. Using custom exclamations can also help to avoid censoring problem for having swearwords in the story.
- “Hell’s bells!”—The Harry Dresden series
- “Merlin’s pants”—The Harry Potter series
- “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ”—The Outlander series
There is always some questions the character doesn’t want to answer, or they get tired of explaining. So to have an automatic response for those can also be turned into a kind of catchphrase.
- “Spoilers!”—River Song when she doesn’t want to answer (Doctor Who)
- “Legendary”—Barney Stinson when explaining his plans (How I Met Your Mother)
- “Elementary”—Sherlock Holmes (sometimes) when receiving praise for his deductions (Sherlock Holmes)
Greetings & goodbyes
When meeting another person you usually say “Hi” or similar, but to some, you state something else. Or maybe always something else. The same with saying goodbye.
- “Hello, sweetie.”—River Song (Doctor Who)
- “How you doin’?”—Joey Tribbiani (Friends)
- “Live long and prosper.”—Spock (Star Trek)
Introductions are closely related to greetings but used less often. The way a character introduces themselves can often be turned into a joke, depending on how it is said, and what is said. It can also be a way to make an introduction for the character memorable to the readers.
- “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”—James Bond (James Bond)
- “Harriet Jones. Former Prime minister.”—Harriet Jones, often with the response “I know who you are” (Doctor Who)
- “Captain Jack Harkness.”—Jack Harkness, often with someone saying “Stop flirting” (Doctor Who)
Repeat phrase or explanation
If you are lucky, you manage to formulate a sentence so resonating that when someone says it, people will think of your novel. But to make it memorable, it has to be told a few times, making it a catchphrase. It can also be hard to put the characters in situations where it feels natural to have them say it, but done right it can stand out.
- “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a ___.”—Bones (Star Trek)
- “You mission, should you choose to accept it…”—In Mission Impossible
- “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”—Various characters say this with slight variations in The Godfather
Words that bring nothing to the table, and sometimes isn’t even words. That is what a verbal tic, or filler, would be. Sounds like “uh” and “eh,” but also words such as “like” and “you know,” can fit into this category. Some also include throat clearing and sniffing as verbal fillers.
The danger here is that it can be too much for the reader to always read all filler words in dialogue. Keep verbal tics to just a few characters, and don’t throw in filler words unnecessarily. Even if you would use more in speech, it doesn’t translate into the written word nearly as well.
What purpose would a verbal tic have for my character? Do they really need one? Are they aware of it? Does it embarrass them? Are they ridiculed for it? Is it part of a dialect?
There are a few different ways to add a verbal tic to a character.
In mangas and other eastern media where adding a suffix to a name indicates a level of familiarity, called honorifics. Exchanging these honorifics from the standard ones to custom ones can be an easy way to give a character their unique voice. In the same way, a tic can be adding a word at the end of most, or all, sentences. Or the beginning.
Adding words to the middle of sentences is where you have to be careful. You do not want every sentence to look like “Like, I’m not even sure, but, like, Vanessa was, like, wearing it at a party last night?” Sentences like this will get old fast, and it will hinder the reader from taking what you want them to get from the dialogue when they have to parse away the filler words from it to understand. Same if every single sentence or line ends the same way—you could make it a thing by pointing it out, as they did with Chantho in Doctor Who.
So, use filler words with caution.
- “Weeeell, …”—The 10th Doctor (Doctor Who)
- “…, no?”—Hercule Poirot (Hercule Poirot)
- “…, savvy?”—Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of Caribbean)
Filler sounds are sounds that aren’t real words and can be body reactions such as coughing, or sounds of stalling and shyness.
- “Hem hem”—Dolores Umbridge frequently clears her throat (Harry Potter)
Changes made to sentences or words can indicate a few different things, merging words for characters that speak quickly or dragging out letters for those talking slowly. It can be rearranging the basic structure of a sentence, using German structure with the English language or similar switches.
- “I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers.”—Jimmy Two-Times, he says everything twice (Goodfellas)
- “Asssssmodeusss”—Asmodeus, who is a snake (Redwall)
- “Nooneisoutspeedingme!”—The Flash, who can do everything lightning fast (DC comics)
The definition for impediment is a hindrance or obstruction in doing something, meaning a speech impediment is a defect in a person’s speech. Some examples of this can be stammer, stutter, hesitancy, or lisp.
Some say that stammer and stutter are the same things, that stammer is British and stutter is American. I have no idea. Some say there is a difference between the two; stutter is repeating the first letter, and stammering is more blocking the next word. Some say both these things and more are called stuttering. What do I know?
- “Who would suspect
p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell?”—Professor Quirrell has a (fake) stuttering (Harry Potter)
underesthimatedhim.”—Zuko with a lisp (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
- “My physicians said it relaxes
the… the… the throat.”—King George VI stammers (The King’s Speech)
Interactions between characters are essential; few things say more about their relationship than how they address each other. It also tells a lot about the character speaking; their personality, upbring, and morals. It can also show respect, or lack thereof, and even hierarchy between characters without having to state it explicitly.
Is there a reason behind the characters way to address others? Lack of trust, need to joke, etc.? What does this say about their background? Is it a cultural thing, a family thing? Do they change their way of speaking in any way?
- Nicknames: Shortening of a name, personality related, looks related.
- Titles: More formal than nicknames; rank, job, or even family related.
- Last names only
- Full names only
- Never any nicknames
- Familial referencing: Mentioning of ancestors, “X, son of Y.“
- Insults: Can be used jokingly (Shorty) or to bully (Fatso).
- Epithets: Often when unknown names, “boy” or “redhead.“
Accent & dialect
Accents are the way a group of people pronounce certain words differently than other groups. Compare this to a dialect, which includes both accents but also changes to their grammar in the way the group talks. With that out of the way, let us look at ways to incorporate them into writing.
Is the way I am portraying this accent as accurate as I can make it? Does the character like their accent? Do they stand out because of it, or is their pronunciation the norm? How noticeable is their accent? Have they ever tried to hide their accent, or made it more intense? Does it change based on their emotions?
- Slang: Location-specific words that others speaking the same language might not have heard before
- Diction: Words with different meanings in different locations; chips in American vs Brittish English
- Contractions: I’ve vs I have. y’all vs ye vs you all vs youse.
- Idioms: Sayings and phrases that don’t have equivalents in other languages/places/dialects
- Verbs: Mixin up tenses, or using ain’t and runnin’.
One of the first things to decide is which time-period the story takes place. We can’t have a Victorian hero say “Dude, I totally tanked that test!” Similarly, a 1990’s kid wouldn’t say “Oh bollocks, cousin dear! Drat my cavalier ways in
Not only are words affected by time and location, but also the person saying them, their personality and mood. A confident person would talk about themselves often and not shy away from making their opinions clear, while an insecure person would avoid stating opinions as facts.
From where and when does the character originate? What personality trait is showing when they speak? How are their emotional state and how does that affect their dialogue?
A character’s personality should shine through not only in what they say but also how they say it. Look at your characters and think of the adjectives that describe them, get between 3–5 for minor and major characters alike. Whenever a character speaks, their words should reflect one of these traits in either content or style.
Let the characters’ personalities shine through in everything they say.Rayne Hall, Writing Vivid Dialogue
Also, their worldview and experiences affect what they might say. I’d say it affects more how they see the situation and what they react to, but it does change what they might say in a particular context.
Examples made by Mrs Hall for some traits and what such a character could say:
- Resentful: “Without Mary’s meddling, we would have won the award.”
- Forgiving: “Mary wasn’t up to the task, but she did her best.”
- Ambitious: “Let’s go for next year’s award and do better.”
- Pessimistic: “Is it worth trying again next year? We don’t have a real chance.”
- Optimistic: “Is it worth trying again next year? We may stand a better chance then.”
- Cynical: “How much does it cost to bribe the judges? Does our budget stretch that far?”
If a character is often happy and smiles a lot while talking, and then suddenly turns sad, then the readers know something is up. Emotions should not only shown by speech but also actions and body language. But the reverse is true as well, do not forget that the voice of the character is affected by their emotions.
- Speed: If they are excited they tend to speak fast, sadness often shows in slower speech and fewer words.
- Reactions to others: Do they wait for others to finish patiently, or jump in while excited to talk?
- Volume: Happy and excited people tend to be louder than shy and sad people. Also, anger can raise voices.
Fixations & Interests
Fixations are things that the character’s mind keep going back. It can be how they did on a test or their money problems—something that they bring up again and again during a conversation, often in different ways. It should be subtle, but present when realising it.
Interests are the topics of conversation they feel passionate about, that makes their eyes shine, and they contribute to the discussion. Not everyone cares about the same things, and that is how it should be. That leads to debate and arguments if one doesn’t care they will give up on the reasons, but if they care they will fight for it.
Both fixations and interests can intertwine, turning a hobby into one of their obsessions. The way a fixation often gets established is that the character references and finds other things relevant to a change towards their area. Changing the conversation into a new direction may leave other characters unsure of how the jump happened, or it may feel natural to follow once a character mentions it.
Another related area is how focused a character is, where a person that is focused stays in the here and now, while unfocused character things of things happening far away in time or space.
How focused are they when talking? Do they think of one thing or million things at once? Do the focus/fixation change over time? Is the fixation short-term or long-term? Is their focus/fixated detracting from the story or character arc?