So, one of my problems is that I have trouble giving my characters unique voices. They usually all sound the same.
I may say that they have a certain dialect or accent, but it doesn't come through in the dialogue. How do I create a unique way of speaking for each of my characters? Basically, how do I add personality to what each character says?

This is an awesome question and there are a lot of great ways to do this! Here are a few tips I've received from fellow authors that I really like.

Consider their occupation, upbringing and background

A computer scientist will speak differently, and make different references and cultural allusions, than an archaeologist or a biologist. Your grizzled electrician should sound different from your soft-spoken world economist. Similarly, a character who grew up in an impoverished background will sound different from a character who had an expensive private education. Reflect all of this in their dialogue as much as you can.

Your nerdy programmer character might gush, "Wow, it's just like in Star Trek!" while your burly mechanic character might grumble, "This guy's more stubborn than a rusted lugnut."

Dialogue can also give insight into a character's background, upbringing, likes and dislikes. Instead of just lamenting, "You drink too much," a character could complain, "You keep drinking like that and you'll end up like my deadbeat bridge-dwelling brother," which both tells you more about their family and provides insight into an aspect of how that character thinks about the world.

Think of each line of dialogue as a little window into that character's world. What do you want your reader to see when they peer into it?

Consider age and generational word choice

Think of all the people you know in the real world. Baby boomers talk differently from millennials, and millennials talk differently than people from Generation Z. Why is that? Each generation has their own way of expressing different concepts, based on the collective culture of that time period. Things like "big mood" and "oof" are unique to young people, for example, and sound strange to an older ear. Similarly, things like "honky-tonk" and "yuppie" are distinct to older generations, but completely foreign to younger generations.

(Obviously this is not meant to denigrate anybody or complain about "them young'uns", these are just generalized observations about language generational gaps and individual people always vary.)

So if your character is younger, make sure they sound like a young person - it would sound strange for a twenty-year-old character to bust out "groovy" in conversation, but they would probably say things like "awesome," "cool" and "neat" and reference modern pop culture touchstones like Tumblr, Minecraft or Harry Potter. Similarly, if the character is an older person, flavor their dialogue as such, maybe using more formal language and making references to old movies or songs.

Important note: Don't go overboard with trying to add "young people talk" into your dialogue, or you'll end up sounding very out of touch. Think of things like Sunset Overdrive and Watch Dogs 2, which aged poorly almost the second they hit shelves due to an abundance of "fellow kids"-style dialogue and characters.

Don't go overboard with accents, but don't be afraid to add flavor

It might be fun to give a character an accent in their dialogue, but don't go overboard, or it quickly gets annoying. However, don't be afraid to really convey how a character talks through the way they shape their words and sentences.

Consider the approach J.K. Rowling took in flavoring Hagrid's dialogue:

"I am what I am, an' I'm not ashamed. 'Never be ashamed,' my ol' dad used ter say, 'there's some who'll hold it against you, but they're not worth botherin' with.”

In my opinion this is a slightly heavy-handed approach to conveying an accent in dialogue, but at the same time, doesn't it make you hear Hagrid's voice in his head when he talks? You can almost picture him in your head exactly the way he sounds, even if you've never seen the movies.

Adding small pinches of flavor to dialogue, like dropping "g"'s or saying "ter" instead of "to," can do wonders in really getting across a character's unique way of speaking. Just don't do it too much!

Give them unique grammatical habits, especially if they're ESL speakers

This tip is mostly specific to characters who speak foreign languages or are ESL (English Second Language), but it can really apply to anybody.

Many bilingual people who learned English as their second language, especially people whose first language was Spanish, Russian or German, have specific grammatical quirks that come through when they speak English. Grammar and syntax that comes naturally in one language doesn't always come naturally in your second language, and as a result, many ESL people tend to have specific grammatical mistakes they often make. This can become a distinctive trait of how an ESL character speaks and will set them apart from other characters.

For example, many ESL speakers misuse articles, i.e. mixing up indefinite (a/an) and definite (the). They can also sometimes struggle to remember specific words in English and might have significant pauses or breaks in their speech. This especially applies to people who are not as fluent in English as they are in their first language.

"Yes, I saw a suspicious man. A man was out back with a set of... um, um." Dex struggled for a moment. "Uh... llaves... keys!"

A character who frequently mixes up articles in their speech, or has other ESL-like speaking habits, can have this become a distinctive trait in their dialogue.

(Further reading on common ESL speaking habits, which you can easily insert into your writing.)

  • 1
    Great answer! Note that the specific ESL speaking habits depend very much on the first language. Chinese speakers are more likely to misconjugate or swap he/she, for example. Spanish and French speakers may more freely use words from their first language. There are a few other questions that address specific ESL dialogue issues. – TMuffin Jul 21 '20 at 14:02
  • @TMuffin That is absolutely true! I used the example of article mixups because it is common in ESL speakers whose native language does not distinguish between indefinite and definite articles the way English does. But there are definitely plenty more examples that depend on the grammatical rules of the first language the person learned. – Sciborg Jul 21 '20 at 20:50

When I started writing, I used to have these thoughts too. All my characters sound the bloody same. (Every time, I see the word 'Bloody', I am reminded of Ronald Weasley)

First of all, it may not be the case. As the writer creating the story, you already know how it will map out and probably that's why everything seems to be in monotone.

If your characters are too similar, creating a character chart will get you into the set.

A few tricks that have worked for me are:

  • Ask questions about your characters that may or may not be necessary to your story. This will help you to know your character as another person and not as a figment of your imagination. Know a lot about your character. Looks, quirks, words, style, etc.

(Are they short, Do they smoke, any quirks they have, Do they bite nails when they're nervous, Words they use during anger, Do they have any unique traits)

  • Go outside and observe people. Converse to strangers and sense their styles. Way of talking, word usage, accent, dressing style, thought process.

(I have a weird hobby of walking whenever I'm stuck in a story. I go out without earphones and just see several people. Helps a lot with profiling several characters)

  • Use a wide range of characters and combine several traits.

Extrovert, introvert, pessimist, narcissist, harsh, rude, kind, forgiving, etc. Use several adjectives for a single character profiling.

  • Initially, try to imitate your friends' chats for the characters. Once, you start getting the hang of it, random people you meet will inspire your story in many ways.

Hope this helps!

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.