Writer’s Craft #4 – Distinct Voices

Kari Terhark writes:

“My biggest problem right now is character development, or, how to keep the characters from all sounding the same.”

A great challenge for any writer. Hope my examples below inspire you to comment with your own!

Well-established characters are easiest. It isn’t hard to spot the terribly-nice Amel in the following exchange from Pretenders (Part 3 of the Okal Rel Saga).

“Are you a real Soul of Light?” Eler demanded, a pout on his full lips and unshed tears in his eyes.
Amel passed over possible responses: the honest one, the glib one, the one that exposed the child’s hope of comfort and threw it back in his face. Instead he asked, very carefully, “Do you need me to be?”

Note how the internal aspect of Amel’s response contributes as much as his actual words. This can be equally true of associated actions but I’ll leave that to someone else to illustrate.

Distinct voices are harder to achieve when you are working with a handful of supporting characters. I cheat whenever possible by giving each secondary character an exaggerated trait or attitude. See if you can slap an emotional label on each of Corin, Hill and Zer Hen in the following bit from Righteous Anger (Part 2 of the Okal Rel Saga).

Hill exclaimed, too loudly, “Yes, sure!” He was still visibly shaken by the challenge card, but seemed equally determined to impress its bearer.
“Not too much wine,” Corin warned the others. “Not if you fight tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow seems a bit rushed,” said Zer Hen.

Your turn! Share examples from your own work, published or in progress, or from your favorite authors. Tell us how they illustrate keeping characters distinct.

E-mail your ideas for future articles to me at lynda@okalrel.org either as a question to be illustrated by myself or with your own example.  Please include CLARION in the subject of the e-mail. Thanks for taking part!


6 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #4 – Distinct Voices

  1. I’ll do two posts, but first I”ll answer your question.

    Hill: Is see him as young 20s, chubby, freckle or pimple faced. He’s a sloppy dresser, his boots are unlaced and there are stains on his shirt. “Yes, sure!” was probably said in a higher pitched voice (although I would have dropped it to a steely whisper if he is visibly shaken, because the two emotions (fear and resoluteness) are clashing in my mind). I wouldn’t think that his eyes would have any ‘intelligence’ to them (do you know what I mean, how sometimes you can just tell the light isn’t on when you look at a person’s eyes?) In short, he is insecure because his abilities aren’t there and he is trying to compensate with a puffed up chest, choice of words, and pitch of delivery.

    Corin: Older, with beard and pointed face. Likes to wear black, has a habit of keeping his shoes polished. No sense of humor. Logical. Doesn’t get close to anyone. He won’t drink at all, and he’ll stay up all night while the others sleep.

    Zer: don’t get a visual on him. Assume that he is nervous, but I’m wondering why he in there. He seems like a tagalong. I’d kill him off.

    1. lol. You got the emotions right! Hill is eager, young but out of his depth; Corwin is the experienced fighter pushing for the fight; Zer Hen is nervous — he’s actually the priest.

  2. A fun exercise is to write a conversation between three or more people with no dialogue tags and still know who is talking. Word choice and sentence structure should differ between people. If you can’t tell who is speaking, you need to work on distinctive voices.

    This is from a post on a forum site. Nothing but straight dialogue in the whole story. It was a fun exercise. For the full post, http://quietfurybooks.com/messageboard/index.php?topic=1462.msg5301#msg5301 and scroll down to about the 4th entry.

    “I refuse. I will sit here and refuse to be tormented by your idiotic attempts at intimidation.”

    “A man of your towering intellect? Look around. I have left you no words except those on the screen dangling so enticingly in front of your smug face. Feeling the chocolate yet? Dripping down from your scalp, trickling over your skin. The caramel all soft and gooey on your face. The peanuts? Ah, just be patient.”

    “I have no patience!”

    “I’m well aware of that flaw in your personality.”

    “What’s that on the back of my neck? It feels like feet.”

    “Millions of them. Did I mention I have an ant problem?”

  3. “I cheat whenever possible by giving each secondary character an exaggerated trait or attitude.”

    Lynda- this gives me food for thought. I’ll probably do some brainstorming on how I can bring this in to my writing. As for an example, one of my favorite books of all time is the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. I love, love, love the way the Cat talks. Here is a passage:

    “I shall sit down,’ replied the cat, sitting down, ‘but I shall enter an objection with regard to your last. My speeches in no way resemble verbal muck, as you have been pleased to put it in the presence of a lady, but rather a sequence of tightly packed syllogisms, the merit of which would be appreciated by such connoisseurs as Sextus Empiricus, Martianus Capella, and, for all I know, Aristotle himself.’

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