Creating More Authentic Character Voices
Open any novel and you can usually tell from line one whether the writing is rich or poor. Has the author considered what they’re writing? Is every syllable selected with care? Is the description eloquent without being verbose? Do the characters’ actions summon emotion? Could you even tell who’s talking if you weren’t spoon-fed that information with all the subtlety of a ladle? Most books have at least one flaw. Often, it’s the dialogue. Enamoured by a high concept, many inexperienced authors lean into creating dazzling worlds or clever plots but neglect their characters’ voices, reducing an otherwise excellent book to one that’s one-dimensional.
When we, as authors, neglect dialogue, we make readers less likely to care simply because our characters have no personality. Imagine Bugs Bunny without his sarcasm. Winnie the Pooh without his earnest wisdom. The Joker without his cackle. Jack Sparrow without his tangents. Take away these characters’ voices and their stories become duller. Admittedly, yes, these examples all come from cartoons and fantasies, but more realistic genres like thrillers can equally benefit from original voices. Indeed, the best ones still have quirky characters; the differences between them are just subtler. Think of how different Jules and the Wolf are in Pulp Fiction.
It might seem like some authors have an innate penchant for writing dialogue — and that’s true — but those who excel at speech often fall short elsewhere, whether it be forgetting to describe settings or struggling to write a compelling plot. This is just how writing works. Fortunately, relying on processes can help you create the impression of having mastered any storytelling component, dialogue being a primary example. Some require pre-planning while others must happen during your edits. If that sounds daunting, never fear, for today’s article will teach you a process of helpful steps you can take to create more authentic character voices in your fiction.
Simplify Dialogue Tags
Inexperienced writers often think you need to use varied dialogue tags like “Luke urged forcefully” or “Clara whispered nervously” wherever speech exists. The reality, though, is that this practice jars readers when overdone. Using “said” without an adverb, or no tag at all, meanwhile, offers all the information readers need without posing a distraction, leading to a more enjoyable read. Knowing this to be true, one easy place to improve character voices is to simplify your approach, which forces you to deliver emotional subtext through their words, like so:
“I’m afraid I can’t say.”
I shoved him against the wall. “Explain yourself!”
“Please don’t…” he said, hands in front of his face.
At the end of the bar, patrons halted their conversations. It took me a second to realise I’d reduced half the room to silence.
In this example, dialogue tags are limited yet we know which character is talking and, importantly, how they feel. One is frustrated, the other afraid. What’s more, the dialogue flows more naturally as a result. The protagonist doesn’t have to explain that he’s angry, and the bar regulars don’t have to speak to convey their discomfort. Tight dialogue can pack all the emotion you need into a scene and distinguish a range of personality types. Master the refining process and each character’s speech will be recognisable even without context.
Give Them Backstory
People who know each other rarely contextualise conversations with enough information for strangers to understand what’s happening at a glance. Indeed, most conversations are messy, peppered with tangents, in-jokes and references to past events. So, how do we write original characters who speak like real people without leaving readers feeling lost? The answer: half-explain tangents to give your characters independent identities but fully contextualise any speech that’s vital for the plot. For example:
“Honestly, I think I’m being stalked.”
“Uh-huh.” I said, scanning the newspaper. “Why this time, Gloria?”
“Well, he was in my life drawing class the other day.”
“Was he the model?”
“What? No! We draw fruit, Miriam. You’ve known this for years.”
“What about that one time—?”
“That was a one-off when Andrew was away. If I’d known, I would never have gone. Anyway, we’re going off topic. About this stalker…”
We learn a lot from this snippet. The characters have been friends “for years” and Miriam has a distant personality; she reads the newspaper while chatting and often doesn’t listen to Gloria. Plus, we discover that Gloria likes to attend life-drawing classes, preferably without a nude model, and may be a repeat wolf-crier when it comes to potential stalkers due to Miriam’s lack of shock. The dialogue helps these characters gain independent backstories without including an info dump that diverts us from the primary stalker narrative.
Consider Personality Levels
What people say in real life often doesn’t align with what they think. They have an outward personality, filtered by social conditioning, and an inner one that reflects their true emotions. Say, for instance, you’re asked to attend an after-work party. You might accept the invitation but have no intention of attending. Likewise, an addict might say they’ll give up a vice but doubt their own ability to resist. Creating authentic characters requires you to portray this cognitive dissonance. An effective way to start is to slip nuances into dialogue, like so:
“I—I can do it. I could run over there and key his car right now if I wanted to.”
“Well, why don’t you, Big Man?” asked Sarah. “Show us you mean it.”
“You know what, I will…” Charlie hesitated. “Tomorrow.”
“Yeah?” Sarah said. “You won’t, though, will you? Marcus isn’t in on Fridays.”
The underlying insecurity Charlie carries while showing bravado is clear here even though it’s never written. It’s inferred in the contrast between his words and the way he stammers, hesitates and stalls. You can execute a similar effect in ways in your own fiction. Indeed, well-chosen words and punctuation used in dialogue can reveal more about a character than they willingly share, and sometimes more than they know about themselves.
Identify Defining Quirks
Masterful authors often use character-specific word choices to give their cast uniquely identifiable dialogue. Doing so makes it easier to write fast-paced conversations that are readable without getting bogged down in directions. If you want, depending on your genre, you can even go further and introduce totally unique speech quirks to make your characters’ voices more original. Think of Gollum’s double pluralisation of “Hobbitses” in The Lord of the Rings and Yoda’s odd syntax in Star Wars when he shares wisdom like,”Patience you must have.”
“He di’n’t do nuffink, m’lord.”
“No? And what do you do, old sport?”
Hat in hard, Roger squirmed under the aristocrat’s gaze. “I do the bins, m’lord.”
“As I suspected. How about you leave matters of the law to gentlemen of quality, yes?”
This example demonstrates how you can clearly differentiate two characters with unique speech quirks. One uses lots of truncations and mispronunciations while the other speaks with the King’s English with a haughty tone. In this case, the quirks distinguish their class and world view but you can use all sorts of language manipulation to make voices unique, hinting at a character’s dialect, religious status or mental health.
The dictionary defines a malapropism as “the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with amusing effect.” Shakespeare used them widely in his plays, partly because they led to misunderstandings between characters to hilarious effect, but also because they exposed powerful characters as incompetent despite being raised with a good education. Consider, for instance, the following exchange:
“You’re with the OET?” I asked, feigning awe.
“My dear, I am the OET. I started it.”
“Wow! Can I join?”
“Unlikely.” Tarquin straightened his cravat. “This is an organisation for educated men. Young ladies like you lack the precise grasp on language needed to unearth conspiracies.”
“Oh? What are you unearthing right now?”
“John Octavio. You know him?”
“The activist who killed that market seller?”
“Or did he?” Tarquin raised a challenging eyebrow. “My dear, Octavio’s an escape goat.”
“An escape goat, you say?” I stifled a smirk. Thankfully, he didn’t notice.
“Indeed. Had you endured a young man’s education, you would think it obvious.”
Anyone who knows the word “scapegoat” will understand from this encounter that Tarquin is not as educated as he believes and that the young female character is his mental superior. Malapropisms are great for adding nuance to characters’ voices. The key is to help readers realise that a character is an idiot without making them wonder if you really just need to hire a better editor. Sprinkling doublespeak, half-truths and factoids into speech but keeping your narrative voice error-free, unless your book calls for it, is an effective way to achieve this feat. Using dialogue to create deep, authentic characters isn’t easy, particularly if you’re inexperienced. Follow the guidelines in today’s blog post, however, and you’ll make more recognisable character voices that illicit stronger emotions, and become a better writer overall — one whose readers form fan pages and set social media alight with their favourite quotes.
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