If you’re writing a book for the first time, especially from more than one character’s point of view, balancing your characters can be tricky. Have you noticed that all your characters sound or act the same? Here’s how to make them sound unique without being caricatures. Here’s how to find your voice.
Similar to tone, voice is the way an author describes things. I’m writing in a voice right now! A voice I hope is informative, casual, and encouraging.
The best characters are written with a strong voice in such a way that their personalities are clear. They feel alive. The following ways to insert voice delve progressively deeper into the mind of a character.
Dialogue is the most literal way your character has voice. If you’ve already written a draft, I’d suggest compiling all the quotes your characters say by character. Next, look for patterns in the way they speak, and if there aren’t any, this exercise is the perfect way to discover that.
Putting all of your dialogue together means you can also spot if characters speak similarly. If you haven’t started writing yet, now is a great time to decide what “tags” your characters will use.
“Tags” are little words or phrases that attach to dialogue. These tags don’t add to the meaning of dialogue, but characterize the person speaking. For example, here are two lines of dialogue. See if you can spot the tags.
“I just think fairies are real, ya’ know?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
The tags are “ya’ know” and “well” and show that these characters speak differently. “Well” can be a word that undermines the strength of a statement, so this character is less confident when they speak. Filler words like “just” also contribute no information, yet help separate character voices.
There are more ways than tags to separate dialogue. A character could be a naturally skeptical person and speak the majority of their lines as questions, or be talkative and speak in long sentences.
As a bonus, tags and other quirks of dialogue can help readers identify who is speaking without attribution.
Habits like scratching palms, cleaning glasses, checking phones, or hands in pockets are unconscious gestures that show how we’re feeling. We all have them. Maybe you tuck your hair behind your ears or scratch your neck when you’re thinking? What does your character do absentmindedly that they don’t pay attention to? Giving characters different unconscious habits helps to separate them.
Routines are also habits. What does your character do everyday? What tasks do they find comfort in? Although a caution about routines: if a routine is ordinary it can get boring when over-explained.
Hobbies can be habits too. Maybe one character likes to paint, and another programs computers or flies drones. Show the interests and personality of your characters through hobbies, and remember that characters can be interested in multiple things (avoid the stereotypes of “the athlete” or “nerd”), and that they can share hobbies too.
Body Language is a great, subtle way to show a reader what a character is feeling. What does your character do when they’re nervous, happy, or sad? How do they act in uncomfortable situations?
Instead of writing “she felt sad,” we can say “she crossed her arms and looked away, her eyes already flooding with tears.” This character prefers to hide her emotions, but others may want to be held or leave the room when they are sad.
Does your character blush a lot? What do they do when this happens? There are many emotional reactions to consider when writing realistic characters. A character may also have different reactions, depending on the situation.
Thinking Style is the deepest level of voice. We’re talking about the actual words an author writes to describe a character’s thoughts. Thinking style can be shown in first and third person (and second if you’d like to go for it!).
Questions for the writer are: How does a character question themselves? How do they see their environment? How do they interpret past events, like their childhood or relationships? A book without thoughts is like a painting without color. Description and dialogue would be boring without being colored by your character’s perspective.
Thinking can also show mood and personality. Here’s an exercise of how two characters feel about walking through a garden. See if you can identify their moods and personalities.
He wandered through the tomato and cucumber plants, the leaves already shrinking from the lack of rain. They’d be dead by winter, such a pain to clear. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. The sickly smell of lilies invaded his nose.
He roamed through the tomatoes and cucumbers, taking it all in. Even though the cucumbers were wilted, the weather was clear and bright. A rain would come. He breathed, and the smell of green was intoxicating. The lilies moved like church bells.
The first character is remote, pessimistic, and maybe doesn’t like gardening. The second enjoys being outside and is optimistic. He describes the lilies as church bells. Figurative language can show a character’s voice. Maybe this character is looking forward to getting married. Specifically what a character chooses to compare something to can show their state of mind.
A character’s voice not only separates them from other characters, but also makes your writing more engaging. Dialogue is a good place to start this process. Personally, I find a character’s thinking style to be the most difficult, since that affects all of the above.
It’s important to consider all of these aspects together. A character’s personality is in every aspect of their voice. A confident character would be confident in their dialogue, in the way they stand, and their assumptions about the world. Defining your characters with these four things in mind makes for realistic characters, and I wish you the best of luck creating them.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.