Distinct character voices

by Angela
(NC, USA)

A chorus of unique voices???

A chorus of unique voices???

If my characters' voices aren't totally distinct from each other, am I a bad writer?

Sometimes I like to start my writing day by reading what famous writers have to say about writing. I find it inspires me. Unfortunately though, I read something about a week ago that has paralyzed me.

Here's what it said, though I'm paraphrasing:

"Every character you write should have a clear and distinct voice from every other character you write...and that's ever been written."

Great. I've written about 3000 drafts of a chapter book, and now I'm convinced that it's all crap. The characters are all girls of the same age from the same place. Am I supposed to give one a Southern accent, and one an urban accent, and one - what? - a speech impediment?

I'm totally blocked by this piece of "wisdom." It sounds completely reasonable, and yet how the heck do you do it? Am I just a horrible writer? Obviously I must be. I can't bring myself to work on my book, or anything else for that matter, because it just seems pointless now.

Does anyone have any tips on creating all "distinct voices"? Is it just word selection? I've heard that writing in dialect is bad, so what's a writer to do? Please help!

Comments for Distinct character voices

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I don't think "voice" is just about sentence structure
by: Steve B. (webmaster)

Angela, I haven't read your manuscript, but I think you've misunderstood the famous author's admonition about distinct voices.

Truth be told, I once read a similar quote (or maybe it was the same one) and was similarly daunted for a time! I thought he/she was saying that voice was all about sentence structure, and I was sure that creating ten or twenty "distinct" voices in a single work was beyond me.

Over time, though, I came to a different conclusion about the author's meaning.

Presumably, even though your characters are of the same age and from the same place, they are different people.

One might have no siblings.
One might be getting raised by a single parent, another by a grandparent.
One might have a crush on a boy.
One might have a crush on a girl.
One might be struggling in school.
One might be coping with the death of a loved one.
One might embarrass easily.
One might be completely incapable of embarrassment.

My belief is that so long as the differences between characters are evident in what they choose to say - and even what they choose not to say - then you have achieved unique character voices.

If a shy character speaks shyly...or is hesitant to speak...
If a bold character speaks her mind...
If a character with something to hide struggles to share...

Then you are on the right track (IMHO). On the other hand...

There IS a problem if your characters are indistinguishable from each other. If one character could just as easily be speaking the same lines as another, then you have a problem - problem that goes deeper than voice. It's a problem that goes to the distinctiveness of your characters.

So "voice" is partly about who a character is
by: Angela

Steve, that makes a lot of sense. And it means my book might not suck! Thanks. :-) I feel a lot better.

Say dialogue out loud!
by: Janeen

Good advice from Steve! Saying dialogue out loud helps me with this issue too. It helps me catch when two voices sound too much alike.

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