5

Is it bad that your characters don't have distinct voices or mannerisms?

I tried to give them some distinct voices and mannerisms, but they sounded too cliched or parodic in that they looked like a caricature we see in Kabuki theatre or a shonen anime. Is there a way to do this a lot more subtly? All my characters are somewhat cold and rational and don't show a lot of emotions except anger. I tried to some lighthearted characters who goof around, but they didn't seem to fit the story at all.

If it's bad, how do you solve this without making the story unrealistic or characters look like archetypal caricatures you see in shonen anime?

3
  • 1
    I would say you're allowed up to one character with mannerism, and that's all. For instance, in Harry Potter, there is Hagrid who eats half his words and has poor grammar. And that's it - all the other characters speak without mannerisms. The dialogues would be too bothersome to read otherwise. That being said, children have different priorities than adults, educated characters have more vocabulary, some characters have more authorities than others, etc, and all this reflect in the way they talk.
    – Stef
    Mar 6, 2023 at 20:56
  • 1
    @Stef Dickens is an example of your point. Some of his provincial dialog is wonderful when listening to a skilled narrator, but it does make for slower reading. He seems to reserve the heaviest usage for characters whose regional origin is noteworthy and/or has substantially shaped their personality (e.g. Sam and his father in The Pickwick Papers). Most of his characters speak typical period English and are distinguished not by how they talk, but what they talk about, and their motivations for doing so.
    – Tim M.
    Mar 6, 2023 at 22:01
  • 2
    This is a problem I've noticed even some successful professional writers struggle with. Not gonna publicly call anyone out (that's less than fully nice), but I've been jarred out of more than one fictional world after noticing multiple unconnected characters using identical unusual turns of phrase. As if its an entire universe unknowingly populated by clones.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 6, 2023 at 23:14

2 Answers 2

11

You may be confusing speech patterns such as dialects as being the same as voice. Voice is as much what the character thinks is important enough to bring up in conversation as it is the choice of words or the manner of delivery.

Each character should have a different background and a set of things that interest them. Joe is interested in architecture and interior design. He notices buildings, architectural touches, and paint colors. Betty is interested in flowers. She sees plantings and trees. Joe and Betty could walk side by side but see different things. Joe goes on and on about the poor design of a building while Betty thinks highly of the landscaping. Joe uses building analogies while Betty talks in terms of the cycle of life. Give your characters the additional choices of sports, food, fashions, and romance, and your reader will have no difficulty in distinguishing them.

Another alternative take on voice. The characters may be focused on the same thing but have different vocabularies.

Many ways to express voice.

2
  • 8
    Just don’t overdo it. When Joe can’t have a single thought or speak a single sentence which doesn’t involve buildings it gets ridiculous.
    – Michael
    Mar 6, 2023 at 9:18
  • Most of the characters should be interested in multiple topics, but maybe Joe could be that one pain-in-the-ass character who annoys everyone else. Mar 6, 2023 at 14:32
5

No, you don't have to do that.

I think it matters more that your characters have distinct objectives and points of view. This helps you create conflict.

I have char-A that is in love with char-B, but char-B is not in love with anybody. I have char-C that thinks they are always right and should be in charge, and five characters that disagree with him.

I have char-E that is absolutely and objectively the most accurate shooter of the group, it's true and she knows it, and she resents the fact that char-B and char-D, both guys, always get the "accurate shooting" assignment.

Stuff like that. They may be a team, but each one has their own point of view about themselves and their teammates.

Especially that many teams all come from the same background with a shared history, we would not expect a group of people that all grew up together in the same small town to be much different on the superficial level of speech patterns, word choices, cultural references, etc.

You can introduce "differences" that don't matter much, favorite foods, drinks, fruits, etc, different tastes in entertainment, some drink to excess and others don't, some are impulsive and others are not, some are sticklers for details and will correct others that really don't care and are sick of being corrected.

Such differences help to create conflict; and even inconsequential conflict or rivalries can help hold a reader's interest, even if they have no real story purpose. They can even lead to blowups, apologies, reconciliation and personal growth of a character: They hate being corrected because it makes them feel stupid and they know everyone thinks they are stupid and they hate that.

The only time you really need different voices is when two characters are so much the same that it is hard to tell them apart by anything else.

Once we know Charlie is a frickin' inventive genius and David is a fearless fighter, what they say and do sets them apart.

That doesn't mean you can't give them verbal "tics". Charlie starts most of his sentences with "Well...", always stopping to think. Nobody else does that. If you start an unattributed statement with "Well..." the audience knows that is Charlie speaking. "Well... Yes! That's a good idea."

That doesn't mean you cannot give them mannerisms, driven by their personality. David and Charlie grew up together, and whenever somebody asks David a question, even about himself, if it isn't about fighting then usually David looks to Charlie for the answer, and Charlie answers.

Elly asked, "What kind of pizza do you like, David?"

David looked to Charlie.

Charlie said, "Double cheese and double pepperoni."

David said, "That's right. That's right."

Keep both your mannerisms and differences of speech grounded in personality, they aren't just arbitrary choices. You don't absolutely need them. You should only use them if they make sense in your character's personality.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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