Can You Read Their Voices?

A few months ago, I discussed the importance of developing your own voice as an author in “Can You Read My Voice?” It shared how you don’t want others to influence you to the point of adopting their style. In fiction and even some nonfiction, however, there’s more than one voice you need to convey—your characters’.

If you played with dolls or stuffed animals as a kid, you probably gave different ones their own voices as they chatted with each other. Maybe the elephant had the deep, booming tone, while the monkey spoke in a higher pitch. Sometimes, though, you might catch yourself giving them the same basic phrases or characteristics, despite the change in voice.

You run into a similar snafu in writing, especially early in your journey. Since my school days, I’ve loved composing dialog and yearned for the times a teacher would assign us to write some sort of script. When I penned my first couple novels, I thrived on conversations, and it’s a favorite technique of mine still. My editor for Husband in Hiding, though, had to fine-tune my methods to further my characterization so that I didn’t just duplicate the same person time and again.

One way she did this was by weeding out my repeated terms, like anyways. Though the word seemed insignificant to me, she helped me to see that, not only did it become redundant, it morphed the characters together. Wes and Cael, who are brothers, could get away with having a similar speech pattern given their close relation, but putting the word in everyone else’s repertoire didn’t create for strong characterization.  

Another trap she lifted me out of was letting my impression of a character dictate the way she spoke. This secondary character had a troubled past and looked to Wes for help. Her woes made her fragile, which makes sense, but I suppose I carried it a bit too far. In my mind, she had a pitiful little voice, and though she was an adult, she came across as a third-grader!

Even though all the characters are a product of our imagination, we have to lose ourselves in them. How? We may not act out their scenes, but we have a lot of the same duties as an actor does. In Matthew McConaughey’s language, we have to “find our guy” with each character. He or she may be nothing like us, but we need to step into their shoes and figure out what makes them tick.

This can be particularly difficult with antagonists who commit misdeeds we never would. To present them in a believable way, we should reflect on why they’re doing whatever it is. We can always strike common ground somewhere, since in reality, we all encounter negative forces that could drive us in the wrong way if we let it. For instance, we probably had an occasion—multiple ones, in all likelihood—when we wanted revenge but didn’t take it like the character did. Understanding their motives and mentality also helps us not give away their hidden agenda if they have one. After all, none of us consider ourselves bad guys.

The best way we can establish good characterization is by viewing our characters as real. If we do, our readers will, too. Whether you pre-write, draw, or just visualize them, connect with them, even the unsavory ones. A masterful ventriloquist doesn’t get famous just for carrying his/her voice well but also for making each puppet distinctive and genuine. Likewise, we need to make our characters more than vessels that propel a plot. They should engage with one another and our readers, forming a bond that goes beyond the pages.

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