4 Ways to Unlock Your Character’s Unique Voice
Characters play a huge role in shaping our stories.
As a result, most writers pay a lot of attention to their characters. From dreaming up their appearances to their favorite foods, character creation is both an important part of writing, and something of a hobby in and of itself. However, true character development goes far beyond this surface level—and this is where your character’s voice comes in.
Encompassing everything from their personality to their behavior, goals, actions, and thoughts, your character’s voice will define who they are in the eyes of your reader. So today, let’s dive into how you can shape this unique character voice, all while ensuring your characters feel like genuine people come to life on the page!
The Power of a Character’s Voice
- 1 The Power of a Character’s Voice
- 2 What Shapes a Character’s Voice?
- 3 4 Tricks for Writing Unique Character Voices
- 4 2 Ways to Test Your Character’s Voice
- 5 Making Your Characters Distinct
When most writers think of a character’s voice, they think of dialog—but, in reality, a ton of important elements contribute to your character’s unique voice. From their body language to their personality, physical traits, and mood, a character’s voice is basically a summary of who they are and how they appear on the page.
So, why does this voice matter?
Well, for starters, your character’s voice tells your reader a lot about them. Readers will pick up on the subtle cues a character gives off through their voice, and they’ll use these cues to judge who that character is. This clues them into that character’s arc, mental state, personality, and a lot more.
Beyond first impressions though, a character’s voice also plays a pivotal role in giving your story depth and realism.
Think about it—you want your characters to come across as real people, and just like you and I have our own unique voices, your characters need a consistent voice too. This ensures they feel like a realistic person, whether they’re appearing on page one or page two hundred.
Of course, actually crafting unique character voices isn’t easy.
As writers, we often have a habit of letting our own mannerisms, thoughts, and style seep into our writing. This is completely normal, but if left unchecked, our authorial voice can eventually overwhelm and even erase our characters’ voices—essentially undoing all the character development we’ve done.
Fortunately, by understanding what contributes to a character’s voice, you can not only overcome these hurdles, but create more memorable characters in the process. Overall, there are a few tricks that can help you do this, along with two simple tests to see if you got it right. But first, we have to ask—what defines a character’s voice?
What Shapes a Character’s Voice?
A lot of writers assume that the only way to differentiate their characters is through accents or over-the-top personality quirks. In reality though, this simply isn’t true. A lot of complex elements will define your characters, and you’ll need all those elements working together to really make the most of your characters’ voices.
This is why it’s so important for you to get to know your characters as people.
Just like real people, each of your characters will have their own fears and hopes, culture, history, mannerisms, and even prejudices—and that’s barely scratching the surface. Fortunately, while there are a ton of elements like these, you can generally boil them down to three categories:
Their Actions: How they behave, speak, and act.
Their Thoughts: How they perceive themselves and those around them.
Your Descriptions: How your words paint the character.
These are the key elements that shape your character’s voice, and each will play a role as your story unfolds. For starters, your character’s actions encompass obvious things like their dialog, along with the choices they make throughout your plot. Meanwhile, their thoughts would be their inner monologue—how do they process the challenges they face?
Of course, you’ll have an effect on your character’s voice too. In fact, the way you describe them is often where you’ll have the biggest influence on their voice. For example, if you show them shifting from side to side or fidgeting with their keys, they may come across as distracted or anxious. You might describe others as steely, dour, or stoic—all of which color your reader’s perception of that character.
Best of all, once you understand these three categories, you can employ a few simple tricks to help you get the most out of your character’s voice!
4 Tricks for Writing Unique Character Voices
Create a Character Profile:
Starting off, when writing a character’s voice, one of the first things you’ll need to do is get an idea of who that character is. This is where we can return to the three categories I just mentioned—specifically the first two.
While your descriptions of your character will play a big role in defining their voice, you need to understand who they are before you can actually put those descriptions to words. This goes beyond appearance too—after all, your character’s voice is more about behavior than looks.
So, ask yourself:
- What experience defines your character’s life?
- What does your character value most?
- What do they fear most?
- What are their hopes for their future?
- What do they want to achieve?
- How would their best friend describe them in a single word?
- How would their most hated enemy describe them?
- What makes them stand out from the rest of your cast?
Based on these questions, you can start drafting a brief character profile. This will give you a handle reference sheet whenever you need a refresher on who your character is and how to write them.
This character profile should include:
- Your character’s name
- A short description of your character
- Your character’s story goal
- A brief paragraph on their backstory
- 5-6 key terms to describe their personality
- 5-6 key terms to describe their flaws
- Any other important information about their mannerisms, quirks, etc…
Once this character profile is complete, you’re ready to get writing!
This section on character profiles is based on my bestselling book, The Ten Day Outline. It walks you through a simple ten-day process for planning a novel, including lots of advice on character development and characterization. If you’re interested, check it out here! 🙂
Remember Their Arc:
At first, it’s easy to think of your character’s voice as static—whoever they are at the start of your story will be the same by the end, right?
Well, actually, your character’s voice should evolve.
You see, while you want your character to have a distinct character voice, you also need to realize that people change over time. This is doubly true during major moments of upheaval or conflict, such as the plot of your story. These are the times when people tend to grow the most, and in that process, their values, mannerisms, and behaviors will grow too.
Because of this, you’ll need to consider your character’s arc when honing their voice. Personally, I find it helpful to think of this in terms of stages. For instance, where is my character mentally during Act 1? What about Act 2? This gives me an easy barometer for how they’re evolving as a person, and I can then apply that knowledge to how I write them.
To do this, write a short description of your character’s mindset at each of these five plot points:
These descriptions could be anywhere from a sentence or two to just a single word—whatever will be most helpful as you write. Now, whenever you’re transitioning to a new stage in your story, you can check back on this list to get a feel for how your character—and their character voice—is evolving!
Use Quirks Sparingly:
Often, writers will lean heavily on things like accents and dialog quirks to try to differentiate their characters, even going so far as to write whole exchanges only in slang. However, while this might sound good on paper, it really only goes surface deep. These quirks may make it easy to recognize who is speaking, but they tell your reader very little about the character in question—which means you’re only using half the potential of your character’s voice.
Of course, that doesn’t mean quirks don’t have their place!
The key is to use them sparingly. Any quirks, accents, slang, or dialects should highlight an important aspect of your character’s background or personality.
For example, maybe your protagonist has a heavy lisp that makes them anxious around other people. This stops them from speaking up for themselves and generally contributes to a strong sense of social anxiety. This is great, because it goes beyond just a dialog quirk and instead teaches us something about your character’s life and mindset.
Ultimately, while I recommend using quirks sparingly, that doesn’t mean they’re completely useless. Just make sure you always tie them back to an important aspect of your character’s personality—and also that your dialog remains readable, too.
Last but not least, you want to make your authorial voice nearly invisible.
I mentioned authorial voice a bit earlier, but in essence, this is your influence as a storyteller. Everything from your writing style to your word choice will shape this voice, and as a result it’s an important aspect of your story—however, it should also be a muted one.
You see, your job as an author is not to be an active presence within your stories, but to instead pull the strings from the background.
As a result, you don’t want to go overboard with witty dialog and clever word play unless it truly matches your character’s personality. By doing so, you’re essentially bragging, “hey look me!” This is very distracting for your reader, but more importantly, it slowly strips away your characters’ voices until they all just sound like you.
Of course, this is much easier said than done.
Your authorial voice will always have an influence on your novels, but even being aware of your particular writing hang ups can do a long way towards making this more subtle.
For instance, I have the bad habit of overusing words like “however” and “of course.” This isn’t the end of the world for articles like these, but in my fiction, I have to make a conscious effort to tone these down. When every character in my novel starts using my filler words, they end up sounding like me—not like themselves.Writing memorable characters is about balancing your authorial voice with the voices of your cast. #amwriting Click To Tweet
So, ask yourself—what are your filler words? What are your writing quirks, and do these fit the characters you’re writing? While you certainly don’t want to get rid of your authorial voice entirely, sometimes toning it back a bit can go a long way towards helping your character shine.
2 Ways to Test Your Character’s Voice
Read Your Story Aloud:
Alongside these four tips for writing unique character voices, there are also two handy tests you can use to see if your efforts are working.
First up is one of my favorite editing tricks of all time—reading your novel aloud.
As simple as this may sound, it does wonders not only for general editing, but also for checking your characters’ voices. While you can read your manuscript all day long, the sensory experience of speaking the words and hearing them come back at you makes everything on the page pop—including sections that just don’t sound quite right.
To do this yourself, I recommend picking one or two passages that heavily feature the character in question. Then read those passages aloud. How do they sound? Do they sound consistent? Then, repeat this with another set of passages for another character. Do both characters sound the same? Can you hear the differences between them?
Ideally, you’ll want to feel a distinct voice for both characters, even if they’re subtle. From differences in dialog to behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, these are the things that will set your character apart.
Scrub Your Manuscript:
Finally, another simple test is to “scrub” your manuscript.
By scrub, what I mean is to pick one or two passages that feature a variety of characters, and then to replace all the character names with a symbol or number. Personally, I use a capital X, but any number or letter will do. Then set the passage aside for a few days, and when you come back, you should still be able to distinguish between all the characters based only on their voice.
If there are any characters you’re unsure on, go back to your original manuscript to see who it is—these are the character that likely need some work!
Making Your Characters Distinct
Overall, the great thing about mastering your characters’ voices is that it goes beyond just characterization. Truly understanding your characters can not only help you polish your prose, but hone your storytelling too. After all, to advance your plot you need to know how your characters would react to conflict—and to develop your characters, you need to know the same.
When you put this all together, you’ll end up with characters that feel genuine.
Ultimately, your characters aren’t that different from real people—and just like you and I have voices of our own, your characters will too. The real question is what kinds of voices they have, and how those voices will influence and shape your story.
In the end, I hope the tips from this article help you better define your character voices, as well as boost your confidence as you set out to write better characters! As tricky as character development may be, it’s all worth it to see your cast come to life on the page. 🙂