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I have roughly 30 speaking characters; about ten speak often enough that their voices should be well defined. I have compiled, from web sources, various considerations when building distinct character voice.

Originally, they all sounded similar to each other and to my education and background. I didn't worry about this in the mad frenzy to finish the first draft. Since then, I have been using a brute force, somewhat mechanical approach to making the characters distinct from one another (and from me).

The considerations I use for voice include: Gender, age, education, accents, personal verbal quirks, tone, emotional state, and so on. (I have not really included actions as part of voice, but I think their actions are distinct from one another.)

Thanks to Word, it is easy to go through a 200 page document and find all occurrences of an individual speaking, or of a particular dialect, or word. So I can make certain that Jane's lines are well developed (assuming she is educated) and Jill's lines are not (if she is not educated.) I can also identify my own verbal habits (I used Oh far more often than I realized), and scan through for them and correct them. This is one nice feature of writing with a word processor.

I've assigned specific (largely invisible) words to each character as part of their unique voices. One character is allowed to say Oh, but the others rarely are allowed to say it. Words like Well, to start a sentence. Or Hmm, in response to not knowing something. Or the use of another person's name, as a single word ... command? that that person should behave.

None of these are used overly much, but each pattern is limited to a single person, and the assignment is meant to fit their personality. The character who is most like a scientist, for example, is allowed to use qualifiers like a bit of (e.g. 'It will take a bit of time') but this is limited to him.

I am curious if there is a downside to assigning verbal tags to characters. It seems to me like one fast and effective way to distinguish character voice. As another example: One of my characters is withdrawn and uncertain of herself. She says I think a lot, and this is because she feels she does not "know" things the way others do. I went through the manuscript and made certain that every occurrence (barring a few) of the phrase I think was coming from this girl. I've done the same with verbal quirks for other characters.

Question: Does this approach, which is part of my attempt to distinguish character voices, seem valid? Is there a red flag here? I understand that I don't want to limit myself by prohibiting other characters from ever saying the phrase I think. (In some cases, where it was appropriate for them to say it, I left it. In others, I changed it to something like If you ask me.) Aside from the possible limitation of this approach (using a sort of mechanical approach instead of a more organic writing approach), are there pitfalls you can think of, that I am not aware of? Or, perhaps there are other simple strategies akin to this, but different, that you have used to distinguish voice.

(Thank you for the comments about actions to emphasize voice. This is something I hadn't put together before.)

  • Is this a screenplay, novel or play? I originally thought novel but your ability to find every line of a character's dialog made me think some sort of script. – paulzag Nov 15 '17 at 0:07
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    It's a novel. There is no dialog passage, as far as I know, that does not tag the speakers. So I don't find every line of Jane's dialog, but I do find every conversation she participates in, by searching for Jane said. In practical terms, I am more often searching for the phrases a bit etc. – DPT Nov 15 '17 at 0:12
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Honestly, I don't think so. A characters voice is as much how they act, perceive things and present themselves as the words/accent they have.

I feel that it would soon become trite, repetitive and more than a little annoying if every character was like this. It may work for one or two, but everyone just seems a bit much.

The way that people talk, the words they use, the sound etc. is as much a product of their surrounds/society as the individual. It's how we recognize that someone is from somewhere else - they sound different.

Sure, there are variations within that, but by and large people from a certain area/region/society will speak the same way. Follow similar sentence structures, use similar words etc.

As a reader, I know that the voice I give the character is built on how their personality shows through in the writing. Use this - their actions, experiences and personality, to give them a unique voice.

On a practical side, how often does it come up that you need to differentiate between 30 different people without dialogue tags or some other identifier?

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    I'm not worrying about the minor characters so much, but the principles, about ten. The main villain, the protagonists, their families, and a couple neutral characters. I think you hit it with "annoying." I will see if it reads that way. The flip side, is that they all originally tended to talk like I do (educated and with a certain regional tendency; also tons of qualifiers in their sentences. They all sounded like scientists - which in my experience tend to be mechanistically minded.) I'll try to find that happy medium. – DPT Nov 14 '17 at 1:42
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    @DPT - You might want to clarify that in the question, then, as it reads like you want to give every character who speaks a quirk – Thomo Nov 14 '17 at 2:00
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    Make the uncertain woman fidget with her clothes or hair as well, instead of saying 'I think'. She can stammer and stumble over words. She can also speak normally when addressed about small issues. I guess she says 'I think' when asked for an opinion. As for tags, if you say: The uncertain woman sat down. " Dpt, can I have a glass of tea?", the reader will understand this is said timidly since the reader knows her character. This applies to them all. – A.T. Catmus Nov 14 '17 at 6:59
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    @DPT - that's an interesting observation. I personally didn't notice it much, as personally I tend to tap my chin or lips when I'm thinking something through, or drum my fingers on the desk - or otherwise fidget. That said, I can understand why Sanderson included this. Another example of blatant character tics is, of course, Robert Jordan. That poor braid. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is I think you're swinging between two extremes. A more balanced approach will yield a more organic story and easier, more relatable and identifiable characters. – Thomo Nov 14 '17 at 23:48
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    Sounds good. I highlight the extremes in the interest of being clear. The OP is already too long, adding nuance seems out of the question. :) – DPT Nov 14 '17 at 23:57
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Be careful not to fall into writer as actor syndrome, imagining the movie of your book and how the actors might act the parts. You are writing a novel, not a prose description of a movie.

While you can certainly create a visceral experience of sight and sound (and smell, and tastes, and touch) in a novel, you can't bring out all the physical detail you would find in a movie because you can only present the reader with one word at a time.

The unique voice of a character in fiction is not based on how they say things, but on what they say. Think of each line of dialogue as an attempt on the part of the character to get what they want. No word is spoken idly. Every word is there to advance an agenda.

How you advance an agenda is based on what you want, what you fear, what you love, and what you respect. These define the path you are willing to take to achieve your objective, and therefore they define what you will say in any given situation in your attempt to achieve your objective. If your characters are well defined, then you know what they want, fear, love, and respect and from this you can figure out what they will say.

Can you add other inflections to this? Certainly. You can hint at an accent. You can play with word choice and sentence length. But these are secondary effects. The reader will know who is speaking because they recognize that this is what a particular character would say in this situation to advance their agenda. If you can take all the inflections out and the voice of the character is still clear from what they say, you have a strong character voice. If you rely on the inflections alone, but don't put genuine sentiments into their mouth, you won't.

  • Could you expand on the "writer as actor syndrome"? I'm not entirely sure I get what you mean and how that could show in my writing. – B Altmann Nov 15 '17 at 14:23
  • This is a useful consideration. Early on I did spend time with each character's motivation. I recall wrestling with why a character would want to do the thing I needed them to do, and how it fit into their prime driving force. As the novel progressed and everyone's personal agenda was underway, (and some minor's concluded and were no longer part of the story), less time was spent on that. I should definitely make certain that the lack of attention to motivation at the end was due to knowing those being second nature to me by that point, and not due to laziness. – DPT Nov 15 '17 at 15:09
  • @BAltmann In a movie, every actor has to be acting all the time even when they are not speaking. There is always action going on in the background. The screen is as crowded with movement, light, and sound as the real world (if not more), and the viewer selectively attends to the part of this that attracts their attention, just as they do in real life. It is tempting for the novelist to try to keep up a similar level of movement in their description of a scene. But this does not work because the reader has to pay attention to each word in turn. Where movies are immersive, novels are selective. – user16226 Nov 15 '17 at 15:17
  • @Mark Baker This makes a lot of sense and I feel like I'm guilty of this. Can you possibly point me into some direction to read up on this and better avoid this pitfall? I'm unsure about how to be selective the right way. Not select the wrong stuff, you know. – B Altmann Nov 15 '17 at 15:20
  • So rather than saturating the scene with constant detail, a novelist must carefully select and convey just the key telling details. Recording every hand gesture and facial tick, every pause, sniffle, and snort, every nuance of accent and diction, all of which would matter greatly to an actor, just takes attention away from the key details the really matter in the moment. – user16226 Nov 15 '17 at 15:21

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