There is a lot written about how a “good writer” makes sure that the voice of a character is unique and distinct from the voices of the other characters in a story. The simplest ways of doing this involve giving a character an accent or a dialect; giving him a favorite exclamation; or having him speak in third person.
Though these methods are okay in moderation, they can easily become annoying. In real life everyone has his or her own patterns of speaking, but rarely are they reduced to such simple and overt tendencies. To combat authors falling back on things like catchphrases, accents, and speaking in third person to create unique character voices I’ve put together a list of five tips for creating a unique character voice.
1) Limit your Character’s Vocabulary
Though as writers we might have stellar vocabularies, the truth is most people (writers included) use only a very limited range of words while speaking. The easiest and probably most realistic way to create a distinct voice for your character is to plan out just how limited his or her vocabulary should be. This can range from deciding your character almost always sticks to three syllable words or less; frequently struggles coming up with the perfect word; or simply sounds like s/he’s never gone past third grade vocabulary lessons. Use words like “scared” over snotty-sounding synonyms like “fearful,” and consider what specific gaps in vocabulary your character should have. Remember Gollum’s line, “What’s taters, Precious?” That lack of familiarity with a simple term helped give his character depth and personality. Just make sure you don’t limit the character’s vocabulary too much unless you want your own Hodor…
2) Over-educate your Character
The flip-side of limiting your character’s vocabulary is to expand it in such a way that it sounds pedantic – or is clearly a product of a particular upbringing. This is not to say that you should have your character sound like a genius. As writers we know that using the biggest and fanciest word is usually not the best way to get a point across. But by sprinkling your character’s speech with oversized words you can paint that person a particular way: as conceited, as condescending, as sheltered, or just as a lover of language. In Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Hugo he had Isabelle – an avid reader – use big, bookish sounding words when she was most excited. This tendency didn’t characterize her as clever particularly, but it worked to characterize her as someone who wants to be clever. That made her personality more nuanced and interesting.
3) Give your Character a Grammatical Quirk
If you’re toying around with the idea of giving your character an accent to show she’s a foreigner but you’re not sure if you want to phonetically write out accented speech patterns, consider playing around with the way the character arranges parts of speech instead. Whereas English sentences are usually subject-verb-object (the cat jumped on the sofa), plenty of other languages use subject-object-verb (the cat the sofa jumped) or other combinations of parts of speech. An extreme example of this (though not necessarily used to show “foreign-ness”) is Yoda-speak. “Strong is Vader,” changes up normal grammar and gives Yoda his distinct voice. Although Yoda pretty much trademarked taking this method to the max, I could definitely see having a character occasionally say things that are grammatically strange, like having a nonnative speaker say,”the cat, on the sofa, he jumped.” In my opinion that’s much less irritating than trying to decipher an author’s attempt at writing out accented speech. But like all these methods, it should be used judiciously.
4) Have a Character Repeatedly fall back on a Type of Figurative Language
I’ve recently been rereading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and have been particularly impressed by Alexander’s characterization of Eilonwy. Eilonwy is a chatty and opinionated young girl who is easily miffed and doesn’t mince words. What helps make her characterization so clear is Alexander assigning her a particular pattern of figurative speech: when Eilonwy finds someone’s actions illogical or inappropriate she always fires off a simile to put it in perspective. For example, she says:
“I don’t care about being a princess! And since I’m already a young lady, how else could I behave? That’s like asking a fish not to swim!”
This type of construction crops up repeatedly, and though sometimes it might seem a little overdone, overall it’s a good way of making her speech distinct. I’m not necessarily recommending any writer steal this pattern, but what Eilonwy’s way of speaking suggests is that there are lots of descriptive/figurative patterns of speech a writer can use to craft a character’s particular voice. A character could be prone to hyperbole or onomatopoeia…or could have an unconscious habit of using alliteration. These quirks don’t have to be overdone, but, if used sparingly, could add a little flavor to your character’s speech.
5) Give your Character a Filler Phrase
Catchphrases like “Leapin’ lizards!” that writers use to show a character’s excitement or surprise are dangerous. They come across as over-the-top and turn the characters into caricatures. In real life people don’t usually have catchphrases of that level of ridiculousness. But people do often have little innocuous filler phrases they use out of habit. These are usually things like, “sounds good” or, “that’s too funny” that really don’t mean anything, but are used in small talk. Shirley from Community is a great example of a character with a realistic and useful filler phrase. She often says, “that’s nice” — which she uses both when she genuinely means it and when she just wants to avoid confrontation. That is the key to a good stock phrase in writing: it should be versatile enough to convey all sorts of different and often contradictory meanings.
What do you think about these methods for developing a character’s voice? Are they annoying or do they work? Any other methods you find work well?