Think of the different voices you use in daily life. You have a certain voice you use with the boss, another one with your partner, and a completely separate one you save for your mother.
If you’re a parent, you have several voices you use with your children. There's the stern, foreboding voice that shows your dissatisfaction or the loving, acknowledging voice that shows your approval. Then there is the voice you don’t even know is inside you when something scary happens to one of your children.
I’ll bet you have a different voice you reserve for your favorite barista at the coffee shop or the checkout clerk at your neighborhood bookstore. How about the formal, professional voice you use when you answer the phone or meet new clients at work? And if you’re Catholic, there’s an altogether different voice you use in the confessional.
How you say things in each different voice results from your background, your education level, where you live, your personality traits and quirks, and to whom you’re speaking. Now multiply that by the number of characters in your book, and you’ll come to understand multiple personality disorders. Or maybe not. It could just be the life of a writer.
Each character must have a unique, distinct, and separate voice
It’s more than mere accent and syntax. Using these as crutches to help distinguish your characters will rub readers the wrong way. Unless you’re writing a multi-ethnic story about strangers thrown together somehow, your characters are more likely to have similar backgrounds. We tend to hang with people most like us. But if your reader can’t tell the difference between characters by their dialogue, you need to work on voice.
An excellent resource to start with is Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. In it, she includes profiles of human behaviors and personality types to help you understand how people react and respond differently because of their unique character traits. You can find it online at Writer’s Digest Shop.
Read your dialogue out loud
In case your friends and family don’t think you’re crazy enough, read your dialogue out loud to make sure you’ve created distinct voices for each character. For those of us who like to work in coffee shops, it might attract undue attention. Maybe find a quiet corner in your home.
A great way to study different voices, however, is at coffee shops, bookstores, and any public place where people gather to chat. Listen in on the surrounding conversations. Identify how one person phrases their questions or uses passive voice when speaking to someone else. Notice how the couple next to you fights with each other and pay attention to how someone else tells a friend a funny story.
Remember, all the world’s a stage, so model your dialogue on as many people as you can.
Cover your character names
Print out your work in progress and use a marker to block out the character names. Now have someone read one or two chapters of your work. Can they easily identify the individual characters or are they getting confused on who is speaking without the dialogue tags?
If they’re easily confused, your characters don’t have distinct enough voices. Sometimes it’s hard when we’re writing to stay in character and we slip into our own natural voice. If you want your readers to get intimately attached your characters, make sure each one has an easily identifiable voice without relying on dialogue tags.
Make sure you know each character’s type
Each of your characters should follow a certain type. Maybe your main character is a natural born leader, especially if you’re writing an action adventure where he or she is the hero. Then some characters in your story should be followers, and you might have others who are peacemakers and disrupters. You might even have an antagonizer, someone bent on annoying the heck out of everyone else.
Each character type will react and respond differently. Natural born leaders are vocal and take charge while followers are less vocal and much more reactionary. A peacemaker just wants everyone to get along while a disrupter likes to argue and question the natural born leader and anyone else. Maybe your antagonizer will whine about everything or cause even more problems for the other characters.
Identifying each character’s type will help you create a voice that rings true.
Read your favorite novels with a writer’s eye
Now go back to your favorite stories and inspect each character. Let’s look at The Great Gatsby as an example of well-written, distinct characters. You can easily identify when Gatsby’s talking and not only when he says, "old sport." He has a distinctive way of referencing things because he has a hidden agenda.
Consider Tom Buchanan. He’s definitely a domineering, abusive type of individual. He could frankly care less who he hurts as he goes about satisfying his own wants and needs. Now juxtapose his character with Myrtle Wilson’s husband, George. You can certainly tell those two characters apart with no need for dialogue tags.
And Daisy Buchanan is as different from Jordan Baker as they both are from Myrtle Wilson. Each character stands completely separate from the others; you wouldn't easily confuse any of them.
As you go about culling the multiple personalities inside you for unique, distinctive voices for each of your characters, note that actions speak louder than words. A cliché certainly but one worth noting.
Looking at The Great Gatsby again. Each character’s behavior reveals more about who they are by how they handle certain situations, especially at the end. You can only reveal so much through dialogue.
Think how utterly boring Indiana Jones or James Bond would be if they only talked about themselves instead of showing us who they are. So, to create individual voices for each character, combine character traits, types, behaviors, actions, and dialogue quirks. And don’t be afraid to let the voices inside you take control. In fact, let them speak freely.