The Writer’s Well Episode 183: How do you make your character voices distinct?

After working with Jeff Elkins on his latest manuscript, J. asks Rachael about the uniqueness and authenticity of her character’s voices.

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38 thoughts on “The Writer’s Well Episode 183: How do you make your character voices distinct?”

  1. Morning guys. Difficult question. Like J I probably write monomouth in first draft, in my case because when I try to differentiate I revert to cliche. So like Rachel I try to use the self-edit to add specific phrases and idioms.
    The main way I make my current protagonist distinct is that he is ex-military, a world I know, so his thought processes, his slang and his reactions are all within my comfort zone. I even have a dictionary of military slang written by a Royal Navy Doctor I knew, which is both a hilarious read and very useful. Although today it would probably be burned in piles in the streets and I would be hung from the nearest lamppost for daring to own a book with such non-pc phrases in it.
    I remember when I was in the army home on leave I used to talk very little for a couple of days until I could retune myself because my natural military slang was full of swear words; it was the way we talked but my mum didn’t like it.
    Another memory. When I was in the army in Germany on leave back in the 1970s I was hitch-hiking around Europe and I met with 3 US Veterans doing the same before they returned to the US to go to Uni. I hung out with them for a few days, then I went to stay in a Youth Hostel in Geneva and met a load of US students and spent time with them. So I had spent almost 2 weeks with citizens from your fair country. Then I met some Brits and the first question they asked me was “which part of the USA did I come from?”
    Speech patterns are not as fixed as some think.

    1. Leaning on memories and previous experiences to build unique characters is super smart. It always helps to have a character based on a voice you know. I find that as I write, the character starts to pull away from the reality and becomes their own voice entirely.

  2. Oddly enough, I’m currently going through my current WIP to improve the dialogue. I have to really understand the character, their attitudes, thought processes, health issues etc. I write ‘place holder’ speech during the first draft with the knowledge that I will fix it later (thanks for giving me that permission, Rachael!).

  3. I’ve just been editing the speech of an elderly, country-dwelling man with a chronic lung condition and realised that he wouldn’t speak in an eloquent manner as I had originally written. I’ve just changed his sentences to be fragments of speech, used much more simple language and less formal grammar.

    I’m always on the lookout for speech that might be useful, whether it’s from books, tv programmes or real life. For instance, I’ve been listening to an audio book which quotes some 16th century English poetry and I’m using some of the idioms from that in my old man’s speech too.

  4. I was super honored and stunned and amazed and excited that y’all included me in a podcast discussion. I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away when I heard it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    And as Rachael and J said, any and all ideas from the community are welcome. I’m about two weeks away from a real launch, so I’m super open to suggestions.

    To answer the question, my stories start with character voice. I typically write a short story with the protagonist in it first before I ever plot anything just to get the main character’s voice down. Once I have that, building a cast around the character becomes easier because I’m comparing and contrasting their voices to the protagonist. And, that short story typically ends up folding itself into the plot somewhere.

    Thanks again!!! Love you both.

    1. Hi Jeff I find individual voices difficult so if you produced a course it would be of interest, at the right price. I wondered if there was anything in “method acting that could be useful for voice on the page. What do you think?

      1. I love that idea. I think what is similar between method acting and voice writing is the practice of empathy. I often tell my writing team at work that they need to “put the character in their mouth.” We will even practice body positions that help us get into a character voice. For example, recently I was building a sim for a recovering opioid addict. Before writing his voice, I had to lean back in my chair. Once I did that, the voice clicked into my head. A course like that could be a lot of fun.

  5. One of the clearest voices I got for a character came from trying to work out what their accent and linguistic tics would be. This was in sci-fi genre and I took an Indian accent as the start point – I was working with a lot of colleagues from India at the time and it was very interesting to see how their speech patterns were different from people of Indian cultural heritage raised in UK. Looked at the cadences and rhythms and the way they put words together and then started tweaking it. Kind of like the old advice on writing a song – find a tune you like and then change it. And once I got a feel for what she sounded by lots of other things about the character fell into place.

    And also – thank you for reminding me that I need to make space and time for fun!!
    Listening to your intro brought it home to me that I’ve been altogether too serious over the last three months. I’ve been really struggling over the last few weeks and have been beating myself up about this. Maybe I just need to give myself a bit of space to relax.

    Thanks for everything that you do.

  6. Well, I thought I made unique sounding characters until I started working with Jeff, then I realized how bland and similar most of them sounded. I am working on that. An issue I have had, if I try to write a character with a unique voice, often in entails ‘breaking’ writing rules. Like have them like say like a lot (valley girl). Or, um, saying, um, um a lot. That usually gets editors using up red pens. And, what I’m learning, doesn’t come across as I think. I’ve tried to read it out loud which helps. Having any of the computer readers read it helps also because it takes out any inflection or emotion. Of course, if what Joanna keeps saying is true, soon we’ll have the inflection and emotion in computer reading be as good as a real human, so can’t even rely on stupid computer to help. 🙂

  7. I’ll admit my process is not the best and perhaps a little weird.
    However, before writing the first draft I get a quick sense of each character via mannerisms, personality traits, etc. By quick I mean 3 sentences at most.
    The first draft is sloppy and sometimes the voices are very similar, but I view that as the staging process, almost like a director going through a scene for camera angles and noting the emotional beats.
    The next drafts are where I go full method and crazy. I will “get into character” while writing in order to get their voice on the page. This means that sometimes I change how I sit and hold my facial muscles/jaw to “become” the characters.
    I’ve been working on this more recently, focusing on an inner voice that constantly asks if the voice and the actions are representative of the character or my own decisions, so having a better structure like the one you mentioned, J, would really solidify this process.

  8. Yet another episode that I starred as a favorite! I tend to write dialogue-heavy first drafts based on a bulleted outline, so your experience and advice hit the target for me.

    J, excited about your new music podcast!

  9. Evening all. It’s clear I have yet to give making my characters distinct through their dialogue. I hope I haven’t been to bad in terms of being a mono-mouth writer but there’s nothing wrong with doing more to improve my craft in this area.

  10. A course or “voice” editing service sound fabulous. I have so much to learn and I’m sure my characters have a lot of similarities. I only start by asking myself four questions about each of the speaking characters. The rest I tackle in revision.

    -What are their default cognitive distortions; all or nothing thinking, mind reading, magical thinking, blaming, personalization etc? The list is long – google cognitive distortions and you will get many different takes on it.
    -What do they think is funny versus what do they find offensive?
    -How literal are they? and
    -How much do they care about what people think about them?

    Looking at it in print I guess I figure out how they will likely react to what other people say, not how they themselves talk (for better or worse).

    Best of luck Jeff. You are always so kind and thoughtful on here I always look forward to your comments- hope it all comes together exactly how you hope.

    1. Thanks Maggie. I love that idea for a course, and the questions are fantastic. The most important thing for finding a character’s voice is empathizing with the character – and it sounds like you are doing that.

  11. Interesting question and replies.
    I think I’m lucky with my character voices. I hear them in my head before I start my terrible first drafts and they become stronger on rewrite. No-one has ever mentioned a problem between the voices I write so I think,maybe this part of writing is my strength. Either that or I’m living in la la land with my head in the sand!
    I have found writing flash fiction has helped my writing and as there is no room for extra words this has honed the voices, or I am just a tad crazy hearing voices in my head. 🙂

      1. There is a group on wattpad #weekendwriters and we have a one word prompt each week to write a story of up to 500 words. It’s been such a great tool for honing skills and trying different genres, and linking with some great people.

  12. I learned to do this pretty much by accident and was surprised I was doing it at all! Basically – in my first book I had two POV characters and was worried that their voices weren’t distinct, until in a late revision I had to rewrite a chapter from one character’s POV into the other’s. I was pretty shocked as I realized that the way the characters thought about the world around them was very different – it’s fantasy; one is from a high caste and the other a low caste, and the way they thought about the same meal was completely different.

    So that’s pretty much where I start now – what about the characters’ life experiences is different? How do those differences shape how they interact with the world around them? The more you understand that, the more distinct the characters are going to be.

  13. I think it’s so interesting that you’re writing a draft in JUST dialogue. When I wrote my comic book series (6 issue arc, small press), the ONLY WAY I could get it done was to write what I heard the characters saying in each scene. Writing a script for a comic book is very different than writing a narrative for a book, so I had to go with the part I understood (the characters have to talk to each other and that’s basically all the “text” you get on each comic page) and filled in the rest later. I think that practice hasn’t left be since scene dialogue I feel is one of my strong suits because I like listening to regular folks talk and notice the quirks of their speech patterns. I know when you J. have picked up Rachael-isms and use them as your own on-air (we all do this, it’s not a jab), as well as how Rachael’s speech patterns have altered with the time she’s spent with you. It’s fun to hear and notice. 😉

    1. Also, hi, I’m late to the party. I forgot about podcasts and have been binging for a while. Just now caught up. 😉

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