Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How To Describe A Voice

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

We have reached Part Four of my four-part series on description. I hope I've given you some good tips for describing things in a fresh way. To recap, here are the links to the first three parts:

-10 Tips for Tight Descriptions
-How to Describe a Place
-How to Describe People

Today I want to talk about different ways to describe a voice. This is something I've rarely done in my books but find very powerful. Remember how we discussed using description flags/tags for characters to alert the reader to something unique about that person? A unique voice can be a great character flag.

Here are some different ways you could describe a character's voice:

What does the voice sound like? Is it high, low, soft, loud, gravely, musical? Does it give people chills or make them wince? Does the speaker have a lisp or a lilt to his or her voice? Perhaps the character is always yelling in an encouraging, coach-like way. Or maybe the character is a low-talker like Lilly Okanakamura in Pitch Perfect.

Here is a list of words you can use to describe your character's voice:

Angry, appealing, baritone, booming, breathy, casual, child-like, confident, creepy, croaking, direct, disembodied, dulcet, eerie, flat, formal, friendly, gentle, grating, gravelly, gruff, guttural, high-pitched, hoarse, humorous, husky, intelligent, laid-back, low, matter-of-fact, monotone, musical, nasal, quavering, quiet, raucous, rough, severe, sexy, shrill, singsong, smoky, smooth, soft-spoken, strangled, thick, thin, throaty, toneless, to-the-point, tremulous, warm, wheezy, and whiny.

Gender and Age
Is the speaker male or female? Young or old? If you have a different species in a fantasy novel, give us a clue as to how they sound compared to humans.

You can give characters accents to depict their coming from different geographic locations by having other characters notice said accents and by tweaking the character's dialogue. You don't have to do it often, but you do need to be consistent. Play with spelling, word choice, or syntax to create different dialects. If your accent is a real one from planet earth, study accents online to get it right. If you're making up a dialect for a fantasy world, keep a record of your words as sort of a quick-reference so you can remember what you did. Last year I wrote a blog post on how to write character dialects. Click here to read it.

Pet Words and Slang
Perhaps your character has a pet word or talks using slang. This can set a character's voice apart from others so long as you don't give every character a pet word or slang. In my Blood of Kings books, Achan was the only character to say "Pig Snout!" as an oath.

The dialogue you use for each character can sound different to the reader if you take care to choose carefully the word choice, sentence structure and length, punctuation, and accompanying dialogue and action tags. Is your character a gentle person? Or is he brusque, formal, or bossy? Check out these examples of very strong personalities. When they are speaking, the reader usually knows it!

A person who always seems angry in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief:

          "Well, I'm Mama Number Two, then." She looked over at her husband. "And him over there." She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table. "That Saukerl, that filthy pig—you call him Papa, verstehst? Understand?"

The funny guy in my book The New Recruit:

          I looked at Isaac until the cool air forced me to blink. He may as well have been speaking Russian. “What’s a field office?”
          “It’s just like a regular office, but in a field,” Isaac said. “They sit in a shack on some hay bales.” Then he cracked a smile. “Naw, I’m just messing with you, newb."

The jerk in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

"Ah, look, boys, it's the champion," [Malfoy] said to Crabbe and Goyle the moment he got within earshot of Harry. "Got your autograph books? Better get a signature now, because I doubt he's going to be around much longer... Half the Triwizard champions have died... how long d'you reckon you're going to last, Potter? Ten minutes into the first task's my bet."

One who talks to himself (and has a unique way of talking too) in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:

“Bless us and splash us, my precioussss! I guess it’s a choice feast; at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum!”

The same character might speak very differently when he is angry compared to when he is feeling nice. Don't forget to take his emotional state into consideration when you write his dialogue. If you're not sure how he'd respond, try and put yourself in his shoes and think through how you might reply in such a situation depending on the emotion you're looking to convey. Here is a list of emotions. How might your character respond differently in each mood?

Afraid, amazed, amused, angry, annoyed, anxious, bored, calm, cautious, concerned, confident, confused, curious, delighted, depressed, disappointed, disgusted, dismayed, disoriented, eager, elated, embarrassed, envious, exasperated, excited, exhausted, frustrated, grief-stricken, grumpy, guilty, happy, helpless, hesitant, hopeful, hopeless, humiliated, hurt, indifferent, infatuated, insecure, interested, intrigued, jealous, joyful, melancholy, nervous, optimistic, outraged, overwhelmed, panicked, proud, regretful, rejected, relieved, resentful, sad, satisfied, scared, scornful, shocked, suspicious, trusting, uncertain, uncomfortable, weary, worried.

What unique ways have you used a character's voice in your stories? Share in the comments.


  1. Really interesting and helpful post. Gollum's voice could never be mistaken for another!

    1. Very true, Clare. He is one of the most intriguing and unique characters ever known!

  2. Making characters' speaking voices unique is one of my favorite (and one of the hardest) parts of writing. In Illusion, I have my three favorite voices: Kate, the MC, is brilliant and organized, so she uses proper grammar and says things like "I'll definitely file that away for future reference." or, "I have organized everything into a list." (even if such a list was not requested. :P)

    Idina, a minor character, is ancient (literally) and lighthearted, so she's always using out-of-date sayings and joking around with Kate and the others.

    Isabella, another minor character, is stiff and proper because she believes, as a high official's daughter, she has to be "perfect" at all times. So she's always serious, speaks very formally, and never jokes around. (she and Idina are fun to get in scenes together. :P)

    Thanks so much for this post, Mrs. Williamson! This series on Description has been hugely helpful and definitely worth bookmarking. :)

    1. I'm glad, Linea. Thanks for sharing your character examples with us. They each sound totally unique. Good job!

  3. Really cool post. I've never really thought about voice before, but I think I've unknowingly implemented it...sort of. Dorlin, my MC, is dark and brooding, and is always scowling, growling and never jokes. Borifas is an old warrior, and experienced in the ways of men. He's to the point, and doesn't talk much. He's gruff and he's always "grunting". But he's not a pig. Gren'eldorf, a wizard is weary and sighing, and sardonic in speaking. When my main characters travel back in time, they meet a younger version of him, young, naive and with a quick temper. Always in search of adventure and such.

    Also, not really related to the post, but I recently hit the 40k mark on my story! YAY! In fact, I think it'll be done soon. It's a short book...but it's kind of my first, in a way. I've never finished a book before! SO EXCITED!

    Is it silly that I keep thinking that a story under 50k is technically a novella? Probably...

    1. Congrats on being so close to the end! 40k is A LOT. *tries not to think about that time she thought 40k in a month was a good idea.*

    2. Congratulations! Also, your characters sound neat. It sound like they would work well together as a team. I like the name Gren'eldorf. :) It's cool.

    3. Thanks, guys! Yep, super excited. Soon I can actually say "I've written a book, what have *you* done in the last year?"

    4. Congratulations, Jonathan! That's awesome. :)

    5. Whoo hoo! Way to go, Jonathan! That's great. 50K is wonderful for a first novel. And if you go back and edit it, it could grow some. (Mine always do...) Thanks for sharing your character voice traits too. It's great that that comes naturally to you.

    6. That's great, Jonathan! ~Savannah

  4. Great post! I definitely have a variety of voices with my characters--my MC, April, is stubborn and sarcastic; Orion, another major character, is cheerfully pessimistic (yes, it's possible to be both cheerful and pessimistic at the same time. Don't ask.) Zoe's quiet; Nick's a little sarcastic and generally only talks when he really needs to; Heather tends to sound confident, and talks maybe a bit too much, especially when she gets nervous.

    1. My characters definitely have loud voices! Garan is cocky, sarcastic, and pretty pessimistic. His brother Brayden, is cheerful and thoughtful and the 'leader-type', if you know what I mean. Arlin is the head of their people, so he's cool and collected but also really stressed out just about all the time, and relies on his assistant a lot. Walter, Arlin's brother, is playful, troublesome, extremely optimistic, and very trusting.
      That's not to say they can't act any other way. Brayden has a temper, and Arlin, even though he's so busy and stressed, is a really good leader. Walt is a good friend, just not the kind you'd trust with a secret or bottle of whipped cream.
      The best part is that they all have to put up with each other! They're so fun to write. Obviously, or I wouldn't be writing my book! :)

    2. Your characters sound great :) Walt definitely seems a lot like Heather, except I don't think April would look twice if Heather had a can of whipped cream . . . Orion, on the other hand, is one to watch out for. I love writing the relationships between characters, especially with this bunch--they can't be in the same room for five minutes without someone arguing with someone, but they can be pretty interesting (and totally illogical) when they all start talking . . . to the point that I'm trying to figure out why I thought putting them in the same book was a good idea.

    3. Ellie and Lil, thanks for sharing about your character's voices. It sounds like you both know your characters very well. That's a great thing. :-)

  5. I've never thought of describing voice before in my stories! This is a really helpful post, since it could help me a lot to distinguish some more minor characters and add depth to my really confusing main ones. My stories a mess and this is just what I needed to get chugging again. Thanks!

    1. Oh, I'm glad it was helpful, Foster. :-)

  6. With five POVs I've had to think a lot about voice. Voice has been one of my strong points ever since I started writing in first person, and I'm always glad to come across a post on how to make my voice and my character's voices stronger.

  7. Great post!
    I know this is unrelated, but I'm hoping for some advice. I'm rewriting one of my chapters, and I just started to add in a character to increase the likability of my protagonist ... My problem lies in the character I'm adding in. He has started to sound like a love interest, one I can't afford and don't want. My biggest issue with him is that he'll come out as a misleading love interest, but I need him.
    I've thought about changing his gender, but this would work best if I made this character a girl pretending to be a guy (the setting allows this to be very plausible). I'm still not sure this is the best course of action, but it solves the problem.
    My main questions for if I go this way are: Could this be cliché? Should I inform the reader, or let them think the character is a guy with subtle hints showing otherwise and reveal it later? Maybe even have this character, who everyone but my protagonist thinks is a guy, pretend to be a girl and pull it off?

    1. I think it CAN sound cliche . . . it's going to depend on how you do it, but if the hints aren't way too obvious, it could be a good option. (Telling the reader right off the bat might work, too, but adding that element of surprise would be a fun plot twist.) Girls disguised as boys are pretty common in MG and YA books--sometimes it's done well, sometimes not so much. If it makes sense with your setting, then I think it could work really well! Guys disguised as girls are significantly less common (I guess, realistically, it's harder to pull off) but that'd be interesting to see, too! Just go with whichever option seems best to you--and if it doesn't work, there's always editing :)

    2. Thanks!:) I'll see if I can pull it off!

  8. My MC Selena is calm, emotionless, and confident. I'm having a little trouble describing her voice, I want her to be mysterious yet attractive. Can you help me?

  9. thank you so much this helped me bunches!!!!!!!! :)