How to Define Your Character's Unique Voice
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To create characters as real as the people around us, we must remember to forge for them their own unique voices.
With individual personalities, cultural influences, experiences, and world views, its no wonder people verbally interact with the world in different ways, and so our characters should as well. Doing so not only helps to distinguish them from the other characters in our stories, but to add depth and realism to their characterization.
But how do you go about defining your characters’ unique voices? The process is admittedly a bit lengthy, but I promise it will prove well worth your time when your characters’ voices leap off the page truly and fully defined. Sound like a plan? Let’s get started with today's breakdown, writer!
Examining the full importance of voice...
Defining your character’s voice bears importance far beyond ensuring their dialogue is unique. Why? Because a person’s voice isn’t solely comprised of how they verbally present themselves to the world. Voice also operates internally. It’s the narrative running through our minds at all times, what we think before we filter the words that come out of our mouths.
Voice is, in many ways, contrary.
It’s found as much in what we don’t say as we do, in our body language as the words we speak. It’s a series of calculated choices that are pushed and pulled by some of our most natural instincts. It is both learned and god-given.
Our voices define who we are as human beings, and so how we choose to use our voices each and every day shapes the ways in which we engage with our world and the people in it. Naturally, our character’s voices should do the same.
How can You Develop Your Character's voice?
Constructing your character’s unique voice is very much a complex and time-consuming endeavor, but when voice is so integral to understanding a character’s identity and defining how they engage with the world around them, I believe it’s worth taking the time to develop.
Today, we’re going to break this process down into two steps. First, we’ll look at how your character’s identity and experiences define their voice, then we’ll examine how that voice will impact both your character’s internal narrative and external interactions throughout your story. Sound like a plan? Let’s dive in!
The Building Blocks of Voice:
As we mentioned earlier, voice is both learned and innate. Nature versus nurture with a dash of personal development, if you will. As such, the natural tendencies that define a person’s innate voice are ever shaped and refined by their experiences.
This means a character’s voice is a dynamic thing and can be very much different at the end of their story as compared to the beginning. Three cheers for character arcs, right? With that established, let’s dig into the four most prominent building blocks that shape our characters’ voices!
The characteristics and qualities that define a person’s personality are more often than not innate, though it could certainly be argued that particular characteristics are also learned. What matters not is from where such traits come, but rather how they impact a person’s voice.
Whether your character is an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert arguably has the biggest impact on how they engage in conversation and the types of dialogue they choose to build, but the buck doesn’t stop there.
Each of your character’s personality traits plays a role in defining their voice, so take the time to hash out their personality as a whole before moving on. Here’s a link to my favorite way to craft characters’ personalities.
2. Cultural Influence
The impact of culture on defining a person’s voice cannot be understated. From societal norms and common practices to pop culture, technology, and politics, every last ounce of a culture’s makeup impacts how a person chooses to engage within that culture—or rebel from it.
To fully consider how culture impacts your character’s voice, you must first understand how they identify within that culture. Nationality alone doesn’t cover it. Take into consideration your character’s ethnicity, religious practices, physical and mental ability, sexuality, gender identity, and any other defining factors that shape how they engage with popular culture.
Keep in mind, as well, that each of these factors (religion, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.) has a subculture of its own. Your character’s voice will be shaped by these elements as well.
Your character’s experiences in life, both past and present, are shaped in part by their cultural identities. But when I mention experiences here, I’m speaking specifically about the experiences that are exclusive to your character.
Consider your character’s upbringing, their friends and peer groups, their educational experience and occupation, their past and present relationships, their happiest moments and their traumas. How did each of these elements shape the person they are when your story begins?
A person’s worldview is very much shaped by their cultural and personal experiences, but it can also be refined by their individual choices. Your character’s personal interests, religious beliefs, political opinions, and/or moral code may vary from those of popular culture or their immediate peer groups. And thus, those elements shape your character’s worldview — and by extension, their voice — in new and unique ways.
Defining each of these major building blocks — personality, cultural influences, experiences, and worldview — will go a long way toward building your character’s unique voice. And with the core of their voice defined, it’s now time to take a look at how that voice shapes their personal narrative and interactions.
How Voice Defines Character…
Remember how we talked about the complexities of voice at the top of today’s article? It is expressed both internally and externally, in how one thinks and how one converses. These are the elements we are going to explore now, having established a strong understanding of your character’s voice itself in the first part of today’s breakdown.
1. External Expression.
Let’s begin with external expression, the element most frequently discussed when considering a character’s unique voice. Specifically, we’re talking about dialogue and body language.
With your character’s unique voice in mind, consider each of these elements of external expression:
Language and Dialect:
What language(s) does your character speak? Do they speak a specific dialect? In what ways does this affect their accent?
Word Choice & Sentence Structure:
Is your character’s vocabulary in any way shaped by their cultural identities or their level of education? What common phrases do they employ? Are they fond of speaking in short, clipped sentences or are they more long-winded? Do they tend to express their opinions in a series of grunts, snorts, chuckles, or groans?
Tone of Voice:
What is the general timbre of your character’s voice? Do they often mumble or mutter? Would you consider them somber, sarcastic, cynical, smug, enthusiastic, shy, or otherwise inclined to a particular attitude?
Whom does your character enjoy speaking with? What topics do they love to discuss? What people and/or topics would they rather avoid at all costs?
What facial expressions or bodily tics is your character prone to employ? What does their posture say about their inner narrative? Are these elements inclined to change when they’re in the presence of certain people or discussing particular topics?
2. Internal Narrative.
While external expression is most frequently discussed when considering a character’s unique voice, internal narrative is just as important. Why? Because your character’s thought process deepens readers’ understanding of their voice, revealing insights such as hopes, fears, prejudices, and regrets that your character might not be so quick to admit in their dialogue.
In essence, your character’s internal narrative builds a secondary dialogue that only your readers are meant to hear.
(Note: In most cases, a character must serve as the point-of-view to relay their internal narrative to readers; otherwise, readers probably aren't getting much of their thought process.
A POV character who does not wish their full internal narrative to be known is often called an unreliable narrator; their internal narrative is compromised in order to cast doubt on their version of events.)
A character’s internal narrative is frequently built on a scene-by-scene basis, as the thoughts they choose to keep to themselves necessitate some sort of external dialogue in order to exist.
That said, many characters do have an overarching internal narrative that drives their character arc throughout the story. This is called “The Lie Your Character Believes” and is simply a fear, flaw, or regret that hinders your character from achieving their story goal or becoming a better version of themselves. You can read all about this topic in our Well-Storied breakdown.
With their external expression and internal narrative combined, you’ve explored all the major ways your character’s unique voice shapes how they interact with the world around them. Give each of your characters a unique voice, and you’ll not only distinguish them as individuals, but create a full cast of characters that is sure to blow your readers away!