My husband and I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast during breakfast this morning and Robin Hobbs was a guest. (You can listen to the podcast here, and I highly recommend you do. It’s only 15 minutes long) I’ve never read any of her books, but she brought up a really good point about character voice that I really appreciated.
Look at your favorite book, or your WIP, find a scene, and take out all the dialogue tags (Joe said, she shouted, the undertaker grumbled, etc.) All of them.
Can you tell who is speaking by the words they’re using?
Honestly, a lot of time, the answer is no. If you have some knowledge of the backstory or the character, the subject of conversation might clue you in. Does it? Even if you assume that the characters are taking turns speaking, which doesn’t actually happen in real conversation as much as we think it does, it might still be difficult to discern.
Why is this important?
Giving your character a unique voice goes a long way toward the believability of your story- and that’s something that writers (not just new writers) struggle with achieving.
The solution to this is to have a specific vocabulary for each character. That’s not necessarily having them speak in a foriegn language or with an accent; though that does go a long way toward giving them a unique voice, it also has the propensity to annoy your reader.
Think about the words you use on a regular basis. Are they the same words that your brother uses, or your professor, or your grocer, or your grandmother? Nope. There will certainly be a lot of overlaps- likely the heart of the language would be identical- but there will be words that each uses that the other does not.
They will also have some vocal tics. You know that friend you have that insists upon using 80s slang? Or the fact that your grandfather always says ‘Hey, y’all’ when answering the phone, even though he’s not from the south?
If you have done the activity above for your own work and can’t really discern who is speaking, take a moment to write down unique words to each person and employ them to give your reader a deeper idea of your character.