Writing fiction, there are at least three ways we create character voices. The first is through viewpoint narration (narrative voice). The words a narrator uses create a distinct persona through elements such as style, subject matter and tone. The second way is written dialogue, showing the content and manner of characters’ speech. The third is via other characters’ viewpoints, when they describe a character’s voice. Read these tips for making a character’s voice memorable:
1. Examine character voices in literature
Classic literature and modern genre fiction are both full of vivid, interesting voices. Compare these first person narrators’ voices, created more than a hundred years apart:
‘God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore. I mean–what kind of fucken life is this?’ (p. 1)
– DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little, 2003
‘My sister, Mrs Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up ‘by hand.’ Having at that time to ﬁnd out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.’ (p. 8)
– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861
Character voice examples: Vernon God Little vs Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip
These two narrative voices are completely different.
Pierre’s narrator Vernon Little has a world-weary, pessimistic voice that is typical of a disaffected teen. Throughout the book, Vernon uses curse words liberally and his observations of others are often honest yet sarcastic or cruel.
Dickens’ protagonist Pip, by contrast, has a level-headed, slightly witty voice. It’s a perceptive, intelligent voice, that reflects awareness of life’s ironies (such as the fact his sister’s bragging about having ‘brought him up by hand’ could also refer to her tendency to give Pip and her husband thrashings).
When you read a story and a character’s narrative voice grabs you, stop and dissect it a little. What makes this voice interesting? Is it sly? Moody? Optimistic? Poignant? Nostalgic? What words or phrases create this effect?
2. Be creative describing how characters’ voices sound
The way a character’s speaking voice sounds can convey many things: Their health (a sick person may have a softer, deeper or weaker voice than usual), age, mood, emotion and more.
To create a vivid sense of spoken voice, use:
- Vivid comparisons: What could you compare a character’s voice to? Does a character’s voice sound like warm Autumn wind? Or are their sentences darting and skittish, moving like a nervous, watchful bird?
- Backstory and experience: How might a character’s backstory affect their voice? For example, a singer who’s used bad technique all their life may have a raspy croak. A character who has suffered immensely may bear this sorrow in the tone of their voice
- Contradiction: Sometimes a character’s voice is completely different to what we expect. The muscled bodybuilder might have a high-pitched (or highly intelligent) voice, for example.
Examples of creative voice description
Read these examples describing characters’ voices:
The woman looked up. First at Guitar and then at Milkman.
“What kind of a word is that?” Her voice was light but gravel-sprinkled.’ (p. 36)
– Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, 1977
‘…he checked himself in order to stretch down and fish the receiver off the desk and say, “Woodrow.” Or maybe, “Woodrow here.” And he certainly barked his name a bit, he had that memory for sure, of his voice sounding like someone else’s, and sounding stroppy: “Woodrow here,” his own perfectly decent name, but without the softening of his nickname Sandy, and snapped out as if he hated it, because the High Commissioner’s usual prayer meeting was slated to start in thirty minutes…’
– John le Carré, The Constant Gardener, 2001
Each creates a distinct tone and mood while making these character voices reflect the current situation.
In the first, the speaker is Pilate, an aunt the character Milkman has never met before because there’s bad blood between her and Milkman’s father. His friend Guitar takes Milkman to visit Pilate. Morrison’s simple description of voice (‘light but gravel-sprinkled’) suggests complexity and experience. Pilate’s voice suggests she is capable of levity and charm but also has a gritty, ‘real’ quality about her.
The second example of a character’s voice by John le Carré reveals Woodrow’s irritability when there’s a phone call while he’s preoccupied with an approaching meeting. Words describing his voice (‘barked’ and ‘stroppy’) suggest he is a man with authority (he can afford to be uncivil). The description clearly suggests his abrupt, irritated mood in this moment.
3. Make dialogue reveal characters’ voices
Character voice is a combination of elements including description and dialogue. Make sure that you write effective dialogue that develops your characters’ and their personae.
How to write dialogue conveying character voices? Eavesdrop and listen
One of the best ways to improve your dialogue is by listening to the way that people talk. Go out in public and ride buses, sit in coffee shops and eavesdrop. Write down bits of conversation. It doesn’t matter if your own book is set in another place or time; just getting a sense of the rhythm of people’s speech, the way they talk (and what it reveals about them), will be helpful. Notice what they talk about as well, and think about what that tells you about them.
Avoid phonetic accents and dialect that could feel like stereotyping
Accents and dialects also tell readers a little about where characters are from. Yet be careful about writing out dialects or accents phonetically. If overdone, it can read as stereotyping.
There are often complex politics involved in this (such as a writer who has privilege or power recreating the speech of the dispossessed or voiceless). When in doubt, have a character describe another’s accent once – its strangeness, or how hard it makes it to understand them. Thereafter, write the accented character’s speech normally.
If your character hails from an area with a distinctive dialect, it is best to choose only a few vocabulary words or one or two patterns of speech to reproduce. Although a few writers have managed to use dialects successfully, this is very difficult to accomplish.
One way to create believable ‘foreign’ voices in a story is to transpose the grammar errors speakers from that region make most often. For example, first-language German speakers often struggle with ‘th’ sounds in English, as German does not use them.
Create character voices using sentence structure
Sentence structure also distinguishes how different people speak. A character might speak in short, clipped phrases or in long, flowery sentences. You might experiment with punctuation; maybe one character’s speech trails off a lot while another always seems to be exclaiming something.
4. Separate ‘character voice’ from ‘authorial voice’
Your voice as a writer develops over time, and it reflects your own ideas, attitudes and preoccupations. The style that you like to write in. Whether you favour lyrical, long descriptions of the natural environment, or concise, witty anecdotal observations.
To really create a character’s believable voice, it has to be its own, distinct entity, however.
Create a chart or plan of your character. [You can do so in the ‘Character’ section of our story brainstorming tool.] Instead of creating a voice that just happens to reflect your own, you can be more intentional. Ask:
- What is this character’s world view? How does this come across in their voice?
- Are they polite and well-mannered or coarse and bawdy? Do they swear a lot or not at all?
- What subjects and passions occupy their mind? How could narration or dialogue show this, from time to time?
5. Keep developing your characters’ voices
Sometimes writers will talk about characters who ‘take over’ a book and either make it much easier for the author to write or steer the story in an unexpected direction. This often happens when characters have strong, specific, well-developed voices.
In order to understand your character’s voice and develop it, you need to know your character. What is your character’s story arc? Where do they begin and where will they (probably) end up?
There are a number of things you can do to develop character voices:
- Try some exercises asking questions about your character. You can complete the exercises in our guide, How to Write Real Characters, for practice
- Think about your character’s background including where your character is from, what kind of an education your character has, and your character’s age and gender. These things all affect how we express ourselves
- If you are still struggling, you might find it helpful to try actually speaking out loud like your character. Think about the character’s mannerisms and work on getting into the mindset of the character in the way you might if you were an actor. This may help you relax into the voice of your character on the printed page.
Get constructive feedback on your character’s narrative or spoken voice. Join Now Novel for constructive feedback and story planning tools.