Doesn’t that title just sound like a hoot and a half? See, this is on my mind because I just finished reading a book where every. single. character. had the same voice. Writing different character voices is hard, after all. You, the writer, have one voice. How are you supposed to sound like a bunch of different people? Well…
I suggest drawing upon the variety of real life. Over the last two years, I have had the pleasure of meeting many individuals who all possessed absolutely singular modes of speaking. Today, I’ll talk about three distinct voices. One from her temperament, one from her country of origin, and one from his education.
First off, we have E., a bubbly blonde with a disposition of absolute positivity. Her face radiated caffeine-fueled joy nearly every day, and, when called, she would skip over to receive a job or responsibility. In fact, she was so upbeat that she didn’t have things which she hated, things which disgusted, repelled, or annoyed her… she simply had things which were, in her own words, “not my favorite.”
If I were writing such a character, I would draw upon my recollections of E., and use short, bubbly words, punctuated with a plethora of exclamation points. “Sure! Yep! Let’s go! Oh, I don’t think that’s best. Maybe something better? Ooooh, nice!” The words practically evoke her bouncing ponytail and bright smile, don’t they? I didn’t give her a brogue or a stutter to over-emphasize my point, I just wrote to the character.
Secondly, we have N., another sweet woman, but one in possession of so much sass and gravity that she perpetually holds an air of a mildly offended goddess. She is from the D.R. and has a thick accent, pronouncing only half of most of her words. I can’t even start writing a sentence of hers without crossing my arms, raising my eyebrow, and tsk-ing at the foolishness of men. Of course, writing a heavy accent in the long-run for a significant character is both tedious to writer and reader alike. There are two ways around this: describe the accent but do not write phonetically, write phonetically in extreme moderation.
I might say, N. pursed her lips, and I knew what she was going to say “You,” which she always pronounced ‘chuu’, “are going to be a great artist.” That last part, she would only say ‘grea artis’, expecting me to meet her meaning halfway.
After which, there would be very little need to describe N.’s accent, as the reader could fill in the rest.
Secondly, there is the semi-phonetic option.
N. held the drawing up and clicked her tongue as she peered regally down her nose at my work. “Oh, my Gaaah.” she drawled in her particular way, stretching out her syllables, rolling her ‘r’s, and leaving out all words she deemed unnecessary, “You going to be great artist.”
Thirdly, and lastly, there was D., a young man of high education who passed through my family’s business on his way to work out on the west coast. He had just gotten his master’s degree and had the curious mannerism of speaking as if he were constantly composing a formal academic essay. He did not repeat the same words over if it could be helped, he restated his point at the end of a thought, and he usually had several bullet-point-like sentences in the middle. When we were at a bible study and the prompt required the participants to summarize the lesson in a sentence, D. honest-to-goodness piped up and said, “I actually have a few bullet points.” whereupon the entire assembled group burst into laughter because it was just so him.
Now, if I wanted to write a character who was bookish, learned, and a scholar, I would write him the way I remember D. speaking. I’d have him start sentences with “Furthermore,” instead of “And another thing,”, I’d write and re-write his sentences until they possessed the clarity of thought which characterizes such an individual, and I’d have no qualms about re-stating his main point through different phrasing just to make the argument seem all the clearer. I would flirt with the depths of my vocabulary for his dialogue instead of keeping him in common parlance, and verbosity would be my friend for his speeches.
In summary: I would never have E. use the word ‘loathe’, would never write N. saying an idiom from outside her native tongue, and I would never let D. say ‘whatever’. However, if you picture a mildly offended goddess everytime N. tsk-s her tongue and crosses her arms, then I have given her a unique voice without her even uttering a word of dialogue. E. is busy chirping encouragement and “Okidokie!”s from the sidelines. D. would cross his legs, tip his head back as if drinking in the knowledge of the universe, and start off with, “If one considers the intrinsic value of syntactic variations of the individual, the connections become profound in unexpected ways. Firstly, you have the idea of empathetic bonds which cement affection through…”
Writing a variety of characters often enhances a story’s quality. If everyone sounds the same, then the words have less weight because any of the characters could have said them.
Not everyone has to have a different accent, but their voice should be as distinctive to a writer’s mental hearing as their hair color, fighting style, or backstory. Giving your characters distinct voices gives the reader a shortcut to each character.
By laying the proper groundwork, I allow the reader to meet me halfway into the fiction; I want this because inviting the reader into the story is the best kind of writing.