July 7th, 2021

5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Create unique character voices by varying how they communicate with other characters.

I’m one of those writers who needs to put my characters through a first draft before I figure out who they really are. Tossing them into trouble and watching how they wrangle their way out of it helps me get to know them. Their dialogue and voices are usually interchangeable at first. It’s more about what they say than how they say it, or even why they say it.

The voices usually come to me as I write, and by the end of the first draft, I’ve written snippets of voice that let me see and hear the characters. On draft two, I develop those snippets into fleshed-out characters. 

Since I don’t hear my characters first (like many writers do), I make conscious choices about their voices, and craft them same as I do a setting or the plot. Which keeps my authorial nose out of my character’s business, and lets them be who they are—not extensions of who I am. Characters who all sound like the protagonist or the author is a common first-draft issue for a lot of writers.

The author’s voice sometimes gets in the way of the character’s voice.

The characters themselves might be fully fleshed out and different as can be, but their voices aren’t. That’s only natural since the author is writing the novel. All their vocal quirks and mannerisms sneak in, which can lead to every character in the story sounding more or less the same. They all ask questions the same way, they react to trouble the same way, they greet each other the same way. If you took out all the dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was which.

Character voices that reflect their personalities not only help readers remember them, it helps them connect to those characters as well. When a reader connects to a character, they care, and when they care, they worry what will happen to that character, and bam—you’ve hooked them in the story. Now they’re invested.

Here’s a five-step plan for creating unique character voices for your novel:

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

How a character greets people says a lot about where they grew up, where they live now, and how open they are toward others. A shy character might offer a soft “Hi,” while an always-the-center-of-attention character might shout, “The party train has arrived!”

For example, imagine one character is waiting outside a restaurant for another. When they approach, the waiting character greets them with:

  • “Good afternoon.”
  • “Yo, whassup!”
  • “Hey.”
  • “Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you.”
  • “You’re late.”

Did you picture a different character for each of those greetings? Each greeting hints at the type of personality that character might have, from formal, to rude, to enthusiastic.

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

How someone responds to a question can tell you a lot about them. If you establish a character as a shy, introvert who has a hard time opening up, it might not ring true if they start giving speeches when asked a question. A non-stop talker is the right character to go to if you need to convey information to readers—just make sure they’d know that info so it doesn’t come across as an infodump.

But a character acting out of character can pique reader curiosity. A chatty gossip will raise eyebrows if they suddenly start giving one-word answers to everything. Why are they so quiet?

For example, what kind of characters do you picture based on these responses to… “Did you go to the movies last night?”

  • “Yep. Any pizza left?”
  • “I did. Jo and I went to that old art theater they just remodeled on Main. They’re showing these cheesy old westerns. It was a total blast.”
  • “Stay out of my business.”
  • Shrug. “Nothin’ better to do.”
  • “Oh dear, I should have called you. I’m so terribly sorry.” 
  • “Yeah, with Juan.”

These answers do more than just answer a yes or no question. Many of these answers lead to more questions. Is character one trying to change the subject? Why does character five feel so guilty about not calling?

Step Three: Decide how they respond to problems and situations.

The true face of a character appears when things go wrong and there’s no time to lie or consider what they’re saying. How do they react? Do they ask questions or make statements about what to do? Do they try to help or shift blame? Are they naturally defensive or do they jump to resolve the issue?

If a character is thoughtful and analytical, their voice will reflect that, and their response to a problem will be thoughtful and analytical. A hot-head who never thinks before they speak will probably gush out all kinds of suggestions—often aggressive options—without thinking them through. Someone who doesn’t care might offer bland platitudes or the most obvious and generic solution.

For example, say a character comes to your protagonist for help. Their response might be:

  • “Okay, walk me through the problem. Exactly what happened?”
  • “Screw that—here’s what you do.”
  • “Just tell them you can’t do it.”
  • “I don’t have time for your crap.”
  • “Sucks to be you.”

The character’s personality will show in how they react to and interact with others. It’ll also show in how they handle their own problems.

Step Four: Let their vocabulary reflect their education.

Education plays a role in how we communicate. Is this character someone with a large vocabulary who likes to use it, or someone with a limited vocabulary who uses a lot of slang or clichés? Take it a step further and think about why they speak as they do. Are they self-conscious about their Ph.D. and purposefully try to sound dumber to fit in (or hide something), or are they a smart person who never got past high school and tries hard to sound more educated?

Maybe that boisterous greeter who makes statements instead of asking questions is really insecure about their lack of education and overcompensates by always acting like they know what to do or what's going on. Or the meek greeter asks questions because they’re not sure they really understand what's happening and doesn't want to appear dumb. Or the friendly greeter asks a lot of questions to determine the best course of action because they truly want to help and has the smarts to offer good advice. (See how these all build upon each other?)

For example, if one character makes a mistake, how does the character respond?

  • “Jeeze, ya made things worse.”
  • “Well, that exacerbated the situation.”
  • “Out of the frying pan and into the fiery pits of despair.”
  • Scoff. “Dumb f@#$.”

No matter what level of education or intelligence the character has, readers (and other characters) will make assumptions based on these different responses.

Step Five: Use words and mannerisms to reflect where the character came from.

Different regions have different dialects, slang, and terms. Saying pop versus soda, crayfish versus crawdad, everyone versus y'all. Where someone grew up affects not only what words they use, but how they interact with others.

A Southern genteel upbringing could mean the character is polite and sweet, yet aloof (cause good folks don't pry) or a terrible gossip (cause prying means caring, don't ya know), an inner-city survivor might take control of every room they walk into because that's what it took to survive. The suburban kid might do the opposite of what everyone expects because they’re tired of conforming.

For example:

  • “Sweetie, I don’t mean to pry, but you look sadder than a soaked kitten.” She patted the couch beside her. “Come now, tell me all about it.”
  • He squared his shoulders as he tread into the room, then met the hard gazes of each man at the table. No backing down. No looking away. He nodded once. “Hey.”
  • She tossed her head and her multitude of tiny braids swayed, free as branches on a tree. “You just don’t get it, man,” she told her mother, dressed in a suit that cost enough to feed a starving village for a week. “You can’t think in that designer strait jacket. I gotta be me. I gotta be free.”

Personality plays a large role in how a character sounds. Their voice will reflect that personality and color both their dialogue and internal thoughts.

Don’t stress over making it perfect early on.

Just getting the information down is fine for a first draft. It can take time to find the right voice for a character.

Play with word choice and how that specific character with that specific background and personality would speak and think. Odds are you have hints scattered in the manuscript to help guide you, so look for anything that feels like it captured the character—especially any positive feedback you received from crit partners.

For fun, follow these steps and share a snippet of conversation between two of your characters in the comments (or make up two new ones). If you’re stuck on what to write about, have them answer the “Did you go to the movies last night” question.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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30 responses to “5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice”

  1. Thanks for having me back!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Excellent suggestions, especially the very last one...you don't have to make it perfect from the start. I also decide on what terms of endearment my characters will use, and also their go-to cuss words. I need to work on their responses to problems more. Good point.

  3. Wish I'd read this while writing Book One.
    I plan to drag it out and go over it a few times during Book Two.
    Many thanks!

  4. Vida Li Sik says:

    Thank you—this is very useful for making your characters sound different.

  5. Great post! And good reminder about not worrying about making it perfect early on.

  6. Thanks, Janice.

    I sometimes emulate the speech and mannerisms of politicians or actors, and hear their dialogue in my head as I write. A cheat sheet of idiosyncrasies is invaluable.

  7. Love these suggestions. Thank you so much!

  8. I can so relate, Janice. There are times when I'll know a character's voice from the start, but more often, I don't. It doesn't really matter because they leave me a roadmap in the story, key bits that, by the end, I can point to those passages and say, "Yes, that!"

    • Oops! Your reply got posted on the wrong comment. Sorry about that!

      Nice to meet another “character pantser.” Sounds like your characters are more considerate than mine. They rarely give me roadmaps!

  9. Jenny Hansen says:

    One of the reasons I like trainings like yours and Margie Lawson's is they give me specific roadmaps for important things that I kinda suck at, like body language.

    I am one of those who sees and hears the movie unfold and that first draft is all about writing what I see. That quick try-to-get-it-all transcribed draft is missing all the cool differentiating nuance. My body language in draft one will be cringe-y things like "she smiled/grimaced/gaped/swaggered."

    BO-O-O-ORING.

    I had to learn to forgive myself and fix it later because it's more important to let the movie play than to start getting down in the weeds of mannerisms and dialogue. It's working out much better for me this way, although I dream of clean first drafts. (Never gonna happen.)

    • Thanks! I love to analyze writing and break it down with examples. It helps me, and it helps other writers, and it’s fun.

      Nope, no clean first drafts 😊 But rough drafts CAN come first, which helps make the “first “ drafts cleaner. And I used the cringey stuff, too. They’re great placeholders, and I just search for them on draft two and revise. It works great.

  10. Such excellent advice. All of those, in one degree or another.

    As for snippets - and getting it right - oh, yes.

    I am tortured by the rough draft (which wasn't that rough - just a long time and much less craft ago) which is mechanically perfect (spelling, punctuation, etc.) and oh so wrong. Taking something that is that right, and often right on the nose, and tearing it apart because I can make it so much better now that I've improved my skills, is so hard.

    And yet - the tweaking, point detail and wholesale, must be done. The voices are so strong now they can be overwhelming, and they spend time saying, "I don't say it like that."

    I'm just glad the early draft will never make it out of the dusty digital files without that work.

    • Thanks! Trunks and trunks for a reason (be they digital or otherwise). We need the freedom to write junk to find the story. Oh, taking good and making it better is SO hard. It works, and we just don’t want to mess with it, lol. Kudos to you for doing it anyway.

  11. Mike says:

    Excellent pointers!

  12. Susan says:

    Great advice, Janice. I love everything you pointed out. I'm one of those writers who hears the characters in my head first, but I worry about my upbringing coloring my characters' speech and behavior. Here's a snippet of dialog from my current WIP. If anyone wants to point out my flaws, I'm open to suggestions/critiques!

    "Gina!"

    I let out a shriek when someone grabbed my arm.

    "Wha's wrong wit you?"

    [description deleted]

    "Excuse me, do I know you?"

    She answered with a snort and eye roll. "Girl, where you been? And why you ghostin' me?"

    "Who are you?" I asked. Her gold necklace said Des'rae in large, fancy script, but she wasn't familiar to me.

    "Quit playing." She gave me a look of annoyance. [description/action deleted] Lowering her voice, she said, "Fryer's been looking for you." Her dark chocolate eyes looked worried. "You in big trouble."

    "Look, I'm sorry, but I don't know you. Maybe I did once, but I have amnesia."

    "Ha! Better not try that shit on Fryer."

    "Who's Friar?"

    "Our manager, as if you didn't know." [description and backstory deleted] "You really don't remember?"

    I shook my head. "I ODed last week. Died for a while."

    Her head snapped back like a bee had stung her nose. "No shit!"

    "They revived me, but now I have amnesia." That sounded more plausible than what really happened. "So anything you could tell me about my life would be a big help."

    "O-kay, but why you talking like some rich bitch?"

    I shrugged one shoulder. "Side effect of the amnesia?" She seemed to accept that explanation.

    • Thanks! I definitely hear two different characters there. I get an urban vibe from Des’rae (Careful of the stereotype line. I’m not a good judge of that, but sensitivity readers can help there). Gina feels a little “blank” right now, but I suspect that’s the intent if she has amnesia. I’m intrigued, though! The “died for a while” line piqued my interest for sure. Some nice tension going on, as well.

  13. dholcomb1 says:

    What a great way to think about character voices.

    denise

  14. Andrea Mack says:

    Thank you! This is so helpful. I also love the reminder about not stressing over making it perfect in early drafts. One thing I’m including in my character “cheat sheet” is how they respond to stress.

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