This blog post was featured for the 2017 Indie E-con put on by writer Kendra E. Ardnek. I had the privilege of being asked to teach for the event. Enjoy!
You know that moment when you pick up a book that looks exciting and full great potential, you flip open that crisp first page, and hungrily begin devouring the story? You’re reading along, maybe still in the beginning but maybe further in and you just realize you don’t care about a character? That they don’t sound real– or they just seem flat?
Lifeless, uninteresting, and colorless characters can be revitalized by a voice that is interesting. One of the most difficult things to do in a story is to make your reader care.
You, as the author, will have no trouble caring (Note: if you don’t care, something is seriously amiss), but how to make that elusive reader want to keep reading?
Make an interesting character. Give them an interesting voice. Here’s how:
Sit down and think about this for a second. Do you talk to your great-grandmother the same way you talk to your UPS driver, or your nephew, or your best friend?
The answer to that is, obviously, no. There are words that we use daily that great-grandmothers could not define.
Are there words that they use that you don’t? Of course, yes. There are phrases, if not individual words, that they use out of habit. My husband has a bigger vocabulary than I do, and from years of listening to audio books, knows how to pronounce all the words I’ve read and am too afraid to say because phonetics fails sometimes.
Think about this in regards to your characters. Most of their words and phrases are going to overlap, especially if they are common in the stream of language, or if you characters are similar in class, background, and upbringing. However. My brother and I are the same in all those areas, but he throws in words about rally racing and cars that I do not understand. Know your character’s passions. That will influence their goals as well as their knowledge and their vocabulary.
One of the most beautiful examples of this is the difference in British English and American English. The other day, some friends of mine from Scotland visited, and during the conversation I heard the phrase “hang on for grim death”, and it jolted me just a bit. I’m used to saying and hearing “hang on for dear life”. These alterations, while they mean the same thing within the context, are unique.
Things to do: Make a note of all the unique words and phrases for each character. Alternately, make an extensive vocabulary list for each character. Have an actual list. Know what they would say and what words they would normally use. Go through and print off a chapter of your work and find all the three-syllable words and all the prepositional phrases used in character dialogue as well as free and internal thought. Are they all the same, no matter who is thinking or speaking? This is a great place to add a little spice to a character. Give a character a vocal tic.
Things to not do: Unless you are a master, and really none of us is, don’t give your character a severe accent. Don’t do it. It wearies your readers, and while it does give your character a unique voice, the struggle to understand is often not worth it.
Question: I’ve created a fantasy world. How do I make the words and conversations unique? I’m not great at creating language.
Answer: Lucky for you, you don’t need to, and unless you’ve studied language, perhaps it’s better if you don’t start making up a huge amount of ‘fantasy words’. They’re difficult to pronounce, for one, and secondly, your audiobook reader will likely get them wrong. (Example: My published novel has a character named ‘Aen’. The first half of his name sounds like the eigh in eight, and so it should be ‘eigh-en’. The reader had his name pronounced ‘Ian’ through the entire reading.
2) Sentence structure.
Have you ever had that friend that always only texts you back one-word answers? Yep. Do you have a friend that texts you back in flawless English with perfect punctuation? You might even be that friend. Who we are often results in how we structure the things that we say. For speakers, it is not always as conscious as it is for an author to write out a dialogue, but it will and does matter.
Who talks like this? “Kill you, he will.” That’s right, Yoda. This is a genius, though perhaps a little clunky and heavy-handed way of differentiating Yoda from every single character in the Star Wars Multiverse.
If you’re like me, you rehearse how you plan to carry out a conversation far in advance. I run through possible topics and my possible responses like a machine. (Maybe an anxiety machine, but still…) Thus, when someone turns to me and says ‘so, tell us about ______’, 9 times out of 10 I will freeze, blush, and stammer something before I get started. I can shove all that panic away once I am able to sort through my brain for what I want to say. Your characters might be like me.
Things to do: make a note of the structure of sentences when a character is facing different emotions. Do they stop and make soliloquies in the midst of a battle? Is your taciturn character always taciturn? Is your bubbly character always full of words? What situations might make them reverse roles?
Things not to do: Copy Yoda’s way of speaking. It’s his. Let it be.
Things to remember: Your narrator, depending on what POV you choose to write in, also should have a personality and his or her own set of unique vocabulary words, structure, and agendas. Even if you’re using an omniscient narrator or POV, don’t let them be boring.
That’s all for this character voice lesson! What has been the most helpful for you?