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Variety in Character Voices

March 15, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 16, 2012

How do writers make characters sound different from one another? How can you do it?

You know you’re supposed to. Characters shouldn’t sound like their creator but they also shouldn’t sound like each other. Not in speech and not in thought.

Do you ever wonder how God does it, makes each of us so completely different? Well, writers get to tackle the same job. And sometimes it’s tough. But there are tips for creating unique character voices.

Use different words
Characters can have their own slang, business lingo, favorite expressions, and favorite curse words.

One character may not curse at all and another may curse like a long-time prisoner and still another may tip-toe around curses with a country mother’s sensibilities—infrequent cussing that’s nonetheless powerfully effective when it is released.

An engineer will use words a painter wouldn’t. A barber won’t sound like a corporate CEO. Neither the barber nor the CEO will sound like a drill sergeant. None of the three will sound like a kindergarten teacher.

One character may use short words, another the 50-cent version. All will have pet expressions and phrases that they love to show off.

Some characters may avoid certain words or phrases altogether, not wanting to give power or voice to what those phrases mean.

Use different sentence patterns
Let one character use short sentences, another long or convoluted ones. Let some characters use repetition in words or phrases.  Vary sentence construction and word order—nouns don’t always have to come first.

Let one character use participial or absolute phrases while another goes for noun followed by verb followed by object.

Add humor to one character
If you can write humor, let one character be the jokester. Maybe create puns for a character. Maybe give him really bad puns.

Cut off speech or thought
Allow one character to use clipped speech or incomplete thoughts. Since this kind of speech can be strong and noticeable, make sure you don’t write the same style for all characters. It’s very easy to slip into a pattern or rhythm; think rappers or Damon Runyon characters. One with a highly unusual speech pattern is usually enough.

Let a character ramble
Some people can’t get to the point. Create characters who ramble or beat around the bush or just take forever to say what they need to say. Rambling speech or thought can bore the reader, so be judicious with this technique. But do use it if it fits a character. Or if a character wants to drive others crazy.

Try a few of these techniques—

Have characters pay attention to different things—some will note their surroundings, some will not. Some will note furnishings or temperature or changes to a room. Some will notice other characters, especially the changes in them, but some characters are oblivious. Use what they notice to differentiate characters.

Give each a personal response style to questions. Some will answer others directly; others will hesitate or answer with a question or not answer at all.

Have one character dominate the conversations.

Have one character always interrupt and one character never interrupt. And then, when one of them acts out of character, others, including readers, will notice.

Consider character education and experience and purpose—is the character trying to schmooze someone? Is he striving to come across as honest when he isn’t? Let one character (almost) always tell the truth and let another almost always lie.

Consider the pressure the character is under—sentences will get short and choppy if a character is worried or is thinking of something else or has too many concerns to think about.

Consider the age of the character, the sex of the character, the culture or national background of a character.

Consider the snob factor—just who does your character think he is? Who does he want to be? Pretend to be? Fear to be?

Consider regional differences. Does your character say highway, expressway, thru-way, or something different?

Do you have a character who uses nicknames, one who speaks in lovey-dovey coos, another who preaches at his friends? Maintain their speech styles and patterns without overburdening readers with too much of a good thing.

Make sure that not all characters say oh or well or oh, please, or dagnabbit. Make them sound different because they are different. Let what’s inside the character reveal him. Let the events happening around him—and their effect on him—influence his word choices. Create different reactions for every character.

Do not use odd spellings and dialect as your main method of pointing out different speech patterns. Words may sound different in dialect, but the words are the same. So they’re actually spelled the same. Use other methods for indicating accents and dialect.


This is a short one today, but I hope there’s enough here to get you started on differentiating your characters’ speech and thoughts.

Don’t worry too much about character voice on your first draft, especially if you’re not quite sure who the characters are yet. If you do know, try to use words and speech patterns they’d use. If you don’t know who they are when you begin, wait until they reveal themselves and then begin writing specifically for them.

Or, if you want to try on a character voice, as you might a costume, write a scene or two with different styles of speech and thought, and see if that doesn’t help you figure out just who these characters are.

Give variety to your characters. Let them speak from their hearts and their guts with all the honesty that’s in them. Let them reveal themselves through word and thought.

Write different character voices.

Create a variety of characters.

Write engaging fiction.




Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

15 Responses to “Variety in Character Voices”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    Ooo…I wrote a similar post for Superhero Nation a few months ago, just because I couldn’t find this type of subject. You nailed it down better than me though, considering I’m not even an editor.

  2. Chihuahua0, I’m sure your post was informative and just what the readers at Superhero Nation needed. Any tools and encouragement we can put out there for writers is good. Like you, many are looking for tips to create stronger characters and stories.

  3. Very helpful and thought provoking hints. I appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge!

  4. It is my pleasure, Lorraine. I’m glad you found something useful.

  5. Shirley Wine says:

    Very helpful and not something I’ve consciously strived for but as I’m editing a romantic suspense novel at the moment I can see that I’ve done this…perhaps not as well as I should have…but with these pointers I hope to improve from here on in.

    Do you suggest speech patterns be included in character outlines?

  6. Shirley, I’m for using whatever works for you. If you think you’ll use the info and it’s not just a way to put off the actual writing, include them in your outlines.

    Some writers go deeper with their prep and their notes and their character development than do other writers. But you’ve got to use what works. You could try it once, especially if you’ve got details you need to keep straight.

    Or, make detailed outlines and include speech patterns if you’re working on a series or writing a book featuring a large cast. Anything to keep characters and their details straight would be helpful.

    Good luck with the edit. Here’s hoping we’ll be finding your story on the shelves soon.

  7. Andrea Dail says:

    Very good post, here, with nice concrete tools to consider.

    I like the idea of not forming the characters’ voices too solidly until the revision process, where you could potentially go over each character’s voice scene by scene, to see if it stays consistent. Thanks for pointing that out!

  8. Andrea, it is true that characters sometimes don’t reveal themselves until the story’s underway. Why force what you don’t know when you might have to change it anyway? Of course, there are those times when you might try something for your character and find you’ve hit on the perfect voice, one that then directs the story exactly the way it should go. I think we’d all like that to happen more often than it does.

    Thanks for letting us know you were here. And thanks for the reminder that we do indeed need to go over the character’s voice and personality in every scene. A very good point.

  9. I needed a refresher with character voices; thank you so much for this article. Helpful hints.