This is a very general question that I want to throw out there just to get some insight into different approaches used. I have my own, but am intrigued to know what others might try.

I'm wondering what processes you might go through in order to develop a unique 'voice' for a character? I'm concerned specifically with applying this to stage plays, although any insight into character voice development for novels or other I would also be interested in hearing about.

Thanks in advance

3 Answers 3


I do it by interviewing my characters. The main idea is to probe and challenge the character, then follow the character's energy.

  1. Ask a question that invites the character to tell me something new
  2. Listen for emotional intensity in the answer. Sometimes the emotion is subtle, and other times it’s big and obvious.
  3. Ask my next question based on that emotion.

Here's a slightly expanded explanation, with example interviews: http://dalewriting.dale.emery.name/2008/09/interviews/

In most of these interviews, I was surprised to find my image of the characters changing. Each one left me with a clear sense of the character's voice.

I also found the numerous character exercises in Will Dunne's The Dramatic Writer's Companion enormously helpful. They're not the usual laundry list of boring questions about characters. Dunne's exercises help you dig into the characters' beliefs and attitudes about things that matter in people's lives, things that generate conflict, story, and personality.

  • +1 I like this open-ended approach, you never know where it's going to lead you. Will definitely try this out.
    – Sky Red
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 11:12
  • Amazing! Thank you very much for this invaluable insight. I will look carefully at the link you have posted.
    – Ian
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 16:41
  • I'll just add to this a little: In another question someone suggested "casting" your characters. I.e., pick someone you know, or a celebrity, or even another character you know well to play the role in some hypothetical movie. This can certainly help you get a unique and consistent voice for the character in dialog. I also found that combining the two ideas was useful for developing the character's character: instead of just interviewing the character, I also "interviewed" the actor in the same way. Get to know the actor a little, and more importantly, explore the character with them. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 13:23
  • Yes, Steve Buscemi shows up in lots of my stories ;-) Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 18:26

Having a series of common dilemmas handy allows you to specify how character x differs from character y e.g.

The character you are developing was really hungry last night but short on cash. They went to the refrigerator and found a slice of pie belonging to their flatmate. What do they do?

If they eat it do they scarf it quickly stood by the fridge terrified of being caught? Or do they eat it sensibly? Do they even get a kick out of the act of theft?

It's the next day, their flatmate discovers that their pie slice is missing. They ask loudly who stole their pie. How does character x react?

Do they admit to their crime? If so how do they explain their actions to their angered flatmate? Do they make a concrete promise to replace the missing pie? Do they intend to follow through if they do?

The purpose in running the character through these simple diagnostic actions is to find out whether the character would cheat. And if they would cheat how they would deal with the situation.

Cheating is something human beings are attuned to be interested in and to consider carefully. A psychological experiment called the Wason Selection test shows how human beings find it easier to deal with logic tests when they are contextualised as being about people cheating or betraying social norms than when they are presented as dry facts. People are built to think about cheating and cheaters. So to find the measure of a person, or aid yourself in considering their character it is likely to help if you think about how they would cheat, whether they would cheat and how they would react if they were caught.

  • Brilliant! What a great idea - find voice through action, essentially! And analysing specifically whether a chracter may or may not cheat is a very unique approach. Thank you.
    – Ian
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 16:42
  • I think my approach to this exploration comes from my time at acting school. This is a very "actory" way to explore a character. Actors have to get to know already written characters but writers can help focus by using similar techniques.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 16:57
  • 1
    Eric Meisel has a terrific book called What Would Your Character Do? It describes 30 scenarios like this, with questions to help you explore the character in each situation. Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 22:18
  • Sounds like a good read. I may hunt it out!
    – One Monkey
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 8:52

Every human being strives to establish a place in the world, to be seen and accepted in a certain way. Their voice, the way they react to each situation, is developed in an attempt to establish and maintain that place. Their way of speaking, their vocabulary, their boldness or timidity, is shaped by the place they wish to claim and maintain. What they say in a given situation is shaped by the attempt to maintain that position in that situation.

No matter the situation, what we say and do is and attempt to maintain our position, to be seen and treated the way we wish to be seen and treated. In other words, we are all attempting to establish our character in the eyes of our peers.

That is the character's voice: how they maintain, or attempt to maintain, their position in society. Some people, of course, are bad at it, lacking the ability to read the social cues that tell them how people are reacting to them. Other people are unable to attain the position they seek and become hostile to others for not granting them that position. For both these groups, it is still about position.

What we mean when we say that a character acts "out of character" is that they act inconsistently with their usual attempt to establish their position in the group. It often seems easy to resolve a scene by having a character say something, or refrain from speaking, but if their normal attempt to establish their position in the group would result in them saying something else, or speaking rather than remaining silent (or vice versa) it will ring true.

Seeing every conversation as a jockeying or social position, therefore, and clearly understanding how each character wants to be accepted by the group, should lead you to their voice.

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