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Character Voices Shouldn’t Sound Like Yours

September 15, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 15, 2011

Each character is different. One wants love, another acceptance, a third dreams of world domination.

One is a country girl hiding her past behind degrees from Vassar and Oxford. Another is a man who gave up Wall Street to care for animals in a nature preserve.

Your main characters, in every story, have experiences that no other character has had. They have backgrounds shared by no one else. They have parents and siblings that no others have had to deal with.

They have lives different from yours.

And their thoughts, words, and speech patterns should not be an echo of yours.

Your characters should not sound like you.

Their lives are different and their words should reflect those differences.

A writer and I were exploring this topic this week. I reminded her that most writers use words or word patterns that reflect their own familiarity with certain words, and that it’s okay to do so in the first draft.

But by the time a story has been through revisions, characters should have developed their own voices. And those voices shouldn’t arouse thoughts of the writer in the reader’s mind.

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Job-appropriate words
Writers familiar with a particular occupation will quite logically lean toward words used by those involved in that occupation. Carpenters have their own words, corporate lawyers have theirs, and actors have theirs. I’m not necessarily talking jargon here, though jargon is included. There are simply some words used more often by some types of workers than by others.

Lawyers and bakers may speak of torts and tortes, but not many others would so easily use either word. And it’s not that people don’t know the words or how to use them. It’s just that some words come more easily out of one mouth than another.

Your characters should use words they’ve learned through their experiences, not yours.

You’ve taken the time to give your characters a background to bring them to the present in your story; don’t short-circuit that background by having them spout words they’d never use.

Location-appropriate words
Characters from one region of a country might use words that others from across the country don’t use. Not slang, necessarily, just word choice. Pop, soda, Coke, drink—which word would your character use? What about sofa or couch or davenport?

Well, what’s the character’s background? What are his experiences? Does he embrace the words he’s spoken all his life or does he consciously choose new words in order to fit in at work or with a new group of people?

His lifestyle and life experiences will be revealed in his speech and thoughts.

Age-appropriate words
The different age groups do use different words. Teens may find their parents’ words old-fashioned and dull. Older adults may consider youthful slang to be silly and arbitrary. Or, one group may purposely try on the language of the other group, finding it appropriate or liberating.

Not all people, and thus not all characters, take on the slang and popular expressions of their peer group, but some do. Recognizing that age makes a difference in word choice is helpful for writers.

Keep in mind that children and teens will not have the same vocabulary that adults possess. Let your young characters sound young unless they have a valid reason for speaking as an adult would.

Younger characters may speak without purpose and may have trouble communicating with adults. Use what you know of kids in real life to stir up conflict or increase tension for the young characters in your stories.

An older character may have trouble even thinking of the right word. Write the struggle to find a word into your character’s day.

Sex-specific words
Men and women often use different words, especially in their thoughts. They also often approach conversations with different aims and different styles.

Women often speak to make themselves and others feel better; talking may have no other purpose. Men like to problem solve. They’re often looking for the problem in a conversation and then working on ways to resolve that problem. Tension arises easily when a man speaks to fix what he perceives as the problem and a woman doesn’t want to be fixed, merely listened to.

That’s a very simple distillation of one of the communication differences between men and women, but that understanding is useful for writers wanting to increase conflict. Using the differences in communication styles between men and women is one way to add conflict to other moments already teetering with conflict.

Men also tend to use more direct phrasing; women tend to be less direct. Men may use earthier words, but not always. Aware of their audience and of possible repercussions to saying something improper, especially in the workplace, characters of either sex may choose different words in some situations. That is, what they say might not actually reflect what they think or feel.

But if we’re privy to a character’s thoughts, we should hear true thoughts, not a watered-down version. In their own minds, keep characters true to their personalities.

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Author intrusion and the writer’s voice
Each writer brings his or her vocabulary to a project. Characters use words that the writer uses; they can’t very well use words that the writer doesn’t put in their mouths or their heads.

Yet most writers know multiple words for any action or object. The writer must actively choose the words that best fit their character, the genre, the type of action, the scene, the tone of the story, and the impact the writer is aiming for.

We have thousands of words to choose from to craft each sentence and paragraph and scene. Each choice builds upon the previous choices to create a certain feel for a story, to produce a satisfying whole without weak spots. Writers need to be aware that word choice will steer their stories, not only in terms of plot, but in terms of tone and mood and theme. The words you choose color your story for your readers. Word choices determine the type of character you’ll end up with. Word choices can make or break a story.

What you say and how you say it is vital.

Unless you are a character in your fiction, a character should not sound like you. Characters shouldn’t be limited by your vocabulary and they shouldn’t sound like your clone.

If you’re partial to a certain exclamation, give your characters different ones. Or none at all.

If you’re witty, make your character clueless.

If you’re an artist, refuse to let your characters speak knowledgably about color and light and perspective.

Don’t let your knowledge seep into your characters’ backgrounds and words if they don’t share that same knowledge.

Pleasing the ear
Writers must consider the sound and rhythm and balance of phrases and sentences—some words just don’t sound right when used together, while others create a pleasing harmony or stir up a useful dissonance.

All other elements of words being equal, one word might simply be a better fit because it has three syllables and those three syllables are necessary to give the proper flow and balance to a sentence. Sometimes it’s not the meaning but the sound or even the look of the letters on the page that help us decide on a word.

And maybe the best option for choosing the perfect word is to cut out the word. Sometimes nothing is better than something.

Character differences
You may write many of your background and secondary characters with featureless voices, but you will want your main characters to stand out. And you’ll want your characters in different books to sound different.

Word choice is important here. As are sentence construction and sentence length and grammar.

Give each character variety in sentence construction—the noun/verb pattern needs shaking up every so often—but also give major characters differences in their own speech patterns. One character should not always speak with the same pattern.

Does one ask questions? Does one call his buddies goofy nicknames, using those nicknames often in his dialogue? Does one speak in very short sentences, often omitting nouns at the beginning of his sentences? Does one character think and speak in long meandering sentences? Does another use as few words as possible?

The smallest touches in word choice and sentence construction can differentiate your characters. Large differences are helpful too.

“Honey, were you planning on stopping at the store on the way home? We need a couple of things.”

“Coming straight home.”

“But could you stop? I need detergent and maybe you’d like some of those cookies for dessert. You know, the ones with the chocolate drop in the middle and the coconut sprinkles on top.”

“Don’t like those cookies, you do.”

“Yeah, I do love them. So you’ll get me some when you stop for the detergent? And how about a loaf of French bread. I’m making spaghetti, since it’s your birthday, and we’ve only got a few pieces of stale bread, that multi-grain stuff that you don’t like. Maybe you—”

“Cookies and detergent and bread. That all?”

“Italian, honey. Don’t forget. And yes, that’s all. And maybe—”

Jack listened to Janet’s piercing screech and mumbled cursing.

“Sorry, honey, I’ve got to go. Spaghetti sauce just shot all over the stove. I love you. Bye.”

Jack shook his head. What did groceries have to do with projections for next quarter? Not a damned thing. But Janet never failed to call him at 4:30, daily, asking him to stop for something and breaking his concentration.

He turned back to his desk, drew the blue ledger closer. Chocolate chip cookies and four million in gains, garlic bread and spaghetti and the Nikkei and soap and sauce . . .

He threw his pencil to the desk, suddenly hungry. He’d swing by the cafeteria and grab a sandwich before heading out. He had a craving for something Italian.

Maybe a meatball sub.

Synonyms are not always suitable
In their eagerness to create characters that don’t sound like themselves, new writers might simply search for synonyms in a thesaurus, content to choose any one out of the list in order to broaden a character’s vocabulary. Yet words have shadings and differences both subtle and blatant. Just because a word is listed as a synonym for another doesn’t mean it’s a natural fit for every situation. Writers using reference materials to find alternate words would be wise to investigate the subtleties of word definitions and word usage. You’ll want to use words with the proper connotations.

If a word is unfamiliar to you, research it a bit. See what it’s best used for. Using a word that doesn’t quite fit is just as bad as using words that you would understand but your character shouldn’t. Words that don’t fit your character, for whatever reason, make that character come across as unreal, as less than he could be.

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Choose them well, the words that influence the reader’s impression of your characters. Make them appropriate to setting and scene and to the history and background you’ve created for those characters.

Use words that the character, not you, would use.

Let character voice by true to the character and true to the story.

Give your characters a voice of their own.

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3 Responses to “Character Voices Shouldn’t Sound Like Yours”

  1. Sheogorath says:

    So it was A-OK to have 21st century Autie Sherlock Holmes call the police ‘fatuous nincompoops’, and correct to keep such high-faluting language out of the mouth of my 20th century original Autie character (12 years old)?