Wednesday, June 8, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 19: Character and Author Voice

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

We are on week nineteen of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. Chapter 16 of THIRST is up over on my author website. Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Week fourteen: Where to start.

Week fifteen: Prologues.
Week sixteen: Dividing Your Book Into Chapters and Scenes Week seventeen: Write Fast and Free
Week eighteen: Dialogue and Thought

Today's Topic: Voice

When talking fiction writing, there are two types of voice: a specific character's voice and an author's voice. First we're going to talk about character voice. Then we'll tackle the subject of author voice.

Creating Unique Character Voices

Characters should be unique and therefore should sound different from one another when they speak. Your characters all came from your head, so it's natural that they might all sound a bit like you. This can be troublesome, especially if you're writing a different gender or a personality that is vastly different from your own. Dialogue gives an author a great way to characterize. The way people speak, the things they say and think, shows the reader who they are. It shows what they care about and what they think of the world or their situation. Randy Ingermanson said, "Dialogue is War," so keep in mind that some of your characters might be internally struggling with a negotiation of status, competing with one another, trying to manipulate someone, lying, or doing whatever they must to get what they want from life.

That's good. That will make your dialogue more interesting.

Work hard on this, but don't make yourself crazy. You really only need to do this for your main cast of characters, which might be ten or so people. There is no right or wrong answer as to how many characters must sound unique. Use your own judgement as to whether or not a character is "one screen" enough to require that kind of character development. You don't want to go overboard and make all of your dialogue stand out so much that it distracts from the story.

I tend to take a lot of time rewriting dialogue. I blitz through my first draft, but in edits I'll go through the book over and over, working on one character's dialogue at a time, tweaking it for many of the things in the following list. Consider these things as you work to make each character's dialogue unique to who they are.

Everyone is the Star: Your characters don't realize that they aren't the main character. We're all living as the main character in our own lives, and that is no different from every character in your book, no matter how minor. Take that into consideration when your characters speak. They are going to be who they are, even if it messes with your plot.

Word Choice (Diction), Dialect, and Grammar: Consider the words each of your characters use and they way they say things. This should be based on something, whether it's interest, culture, education, snobbery, social position, fear, emotion, or the region in which they live or grew up. Y'all know what I mean?

Foreign Language: Whether a character is from a different country or is just pompous, you can use a foreign language to set that person's dialogue apart. Some foreigners speak in a combination of English and their native tongue. They might also use completely foreign phrases when they are excited or upset. Study the syntax of how someone from a particular country builds sentences in English. You can tweak spelling for accents, just be careful not to overdo it as it can annoy readers. Also, work hard to nail this so that you don't offend readers by writing stereotypes or cliched characters.

Contractions: Most people use contractions. Some don't. Nuff said.

Sentence Length: Some people say very little. Other never shut up. Consider people who might trail off from shyness or because they forget what they were talking about. My character Charlon in King's Folly speaks and thinks in sentence fragments because, as one who has been abused, she is hyper-observant and does everything in tentative baby steps.

Sentence Structure (Syntax): Syntax isn't only important for those who speak English as a second language. The way people put words into sentences is not always approached the same way. Does your character use simple or complex sentences? Does he end his sentences with verbs? Start every sentence with an interjection? Play around with this.

Punctuation: I've mentioned characters whose sentences might trail off. That would be shown with an ellipses. There are many ways to use punctuation to create interesting ways for characters to talk. Consider the overuse of commas for someone who says "Uh" or "Um" a lot. Hyphens can show a stutter. Em dashes show interruptions or asides in speech or a complete change in subject. Colons can show a character who use appositives: repeating the way he says things so that people understand him.

Verbal Tics: These are words or phrases repeated unconsciously that add no value to what is spoken. They are garbage words. You could throw them out and still understand the speaker. They can, however, help characterize. Consider slang; curse words; ums and ahs; words like: actually, like, literally, honestly, totally, friend, so; phrases like: you know, trust me, to be honest, the thing is, oh my gosh, and stuff like that; or questions that are sometimes tacked onto the end of every sentence: Right? Okay? Yeah? and You know what I'm saying?

Habitual Words: Is there a word or phrase your character says often? Take, for example, the way Rob Lowe's character Chris Traeger from the show Parks and Recreation greets people by their full names. I can hear him now saying, "Ann Perkins."

Catchphrases: A catchphrase is a sentence, phrase, or word that has become famous enough that lots of people use it. Rob Lowe's Chris Traeger character's verbal tick of saying "literally" has become a catchphrase. He "literally" says the word literally in at least every episode. Consider these other famous catchphrases. Can you guess who said them and where?

"I know what we're gonna do today."
"You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye."
"To infinity... and beyond!"
"May the Force be with you."
"Come on down!"
"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
“Lucy, you got some splaining to do!”
“Would you believe…?” (Fill in the blank differently each time.)
“How you doin’?”
"Well. Isn't that special?"
"There's no place like home."
"As you wish."
"More cowbell."
"I have a bad feeling about this."
"Bond. James Bond."
"Just keep swimming."
"I'll be back."
"Here's looking at you, kid."
“Live long and prosper.”

Gender: Generally speaking, men and women do not sound the same when talking. If you're having difficulty writing dialogue for one of the genders, this post might help you.

Archetypes: Assigning character archetypes might help you as you choose ways for your characters to speak. A nerd, a ditsy girl, a foreigner, and the funny guy would all say the same thing in very different ways. To read a post I wrote on character archetypes, click here.

Personality: Consider age, confidence level, interests, fears, quirks, manners, ethnicity, etc when writing dialogue.

Quirks: What kinds of quirks do your characters have? A critical person will always have somthing negative to say. Know-it-alls like to point out facts. Some people like to argue for no reason. Some people are just vulgar. Some characters like metaphors. My father-in-law is always using old-timey phrases like "That's handier than a pocket in a shirt!" Some speakers are indecisive. Some babble. Some dominate conversations. Some interrupt. Some are bossy. Some are snobs. Quirks in behavior also influence speech. A character with a fear of getting sunburned will speak up if she thinks she's in danger. Also, sometimes a character is set off by another specific character and their dialogue will always be explosive.

Mannerisms: Writing unique actions for a particular character can be a way of setting someone apart. Things like a wrinkled brow, a facial tic, someone who bites their lower lip, etc.

Impersonations: Toy with your own impersonations of famous people. Your impersonation will likely be imperfect, but it might help you channel a character's voice by giving them a famous counterpart.

Listen: Listen to the way people talk. See if you can notice any interesting speech patterns.

Personality Type: The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a questionnaire that is designed to categorize users by psychological preferences in how each makes decisions and perceives the world. I wrote a post on this topic a while back. Click here to read it. Once you choose a personality type for your character, you can visit to see what famous people have that same personality. You can read famous quotes under each personality type, which can help you get a grasp on how someone with a similar personality type might speak. And if a personality type is very far off from your own, you might look up forums for that personality type and read how those people talk to each other.

Analyze Your Own Voices: We all use different voices. Think about the way you talk to your mom vs. the voice you use with a sibling, a best friend, or your dog. Your characters should do this too.

As with all things in writing, less is more. Don't overdo any of this. Use everything in moderation. A careful balance is key.

Here is an example of two characters from my book Captives. Notice how their dialogue reflects how very different they are from each other.

       “Hi, Mason.” Jemma looked up from the flowers and smiled. “How are you today?”
       “Fine. Looking for Omar.” Unlike most people, when Jemma asked, “How are you?” she truly wanted to know. But if Mason had answered truthfully, Jemma would insist on more information. And Mason had no time for Jemma’s compassion today. “Have you seen him?”
       “Not since the harvest field this morning,” she said. “I hope you find him. Levi says your father might have made him a match.”
       “Yes, well, my father and Levi’s enthusiasm in this matter only enforces my skepticism.”
       “Mason.” After staring at the centerpiece for a moment, Jemma pulled a mule’s ear from her hand and threaded the flower into the arrangement. “You should be happy for Omar. Getting married would be wonderful for him.”
       “I’m not unhappy. I simply see no point in celebrating that which has not yet taken place.”
       Jemma practically sang her reply. “ ‘You can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.’ ”
       Mason frowned, pondering her words. “That’s not yours, is it?”
       “Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite Old books. And Anne is right. So go find Omar so you can celebrate.”
       Mason left without offering a reply and made his way back across the square to the stage. He suspected his brother would have many baffling encounters with his new bride. How women could find joy in the marriage of complete strangers, Mason would never understand.

In Captives, Jemma is a bubbly, happy person. A romantic, who refuses to be hopeless. She wears her heart on her sleeve. Mason is practical, busy, and blunt.

Here are some other examples you might recognize:

"Farewell, Daughter of Eve," said he."Perhaps I may keep the handkerchief?"
(The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis)

"Easy, Ponyboy. They ain't gonna hurt you no more."
"I know," I said, but the ground began to blur and I felt hot tears running down my cheeks. I brushed them away impatiently. "I'm just a little spooked, that's all." I drew in a quivering breath and quit crying. You just don't cry in front of Darry. Not unless you're hurt like Johnny had been that day we found him in the vacant lot. Compared to Johnny I wasn't hurt at all.
(The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton)

"It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will."
(Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery)

"No one wants to upset me! That's a good one!" howled Myrtle. "My life was nothing but misery at this place and now people come along ruining my death!"
(Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling)

"Don't you 'what Mama' me, you little Saumensch!"
(The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)

Mr. Neck: "We meet again."
Would he listen to "I need to go home and change," or "Did you see what that bozo did"? Not a chance. I keep my mouth shut.
Mr. Neck: "Where do you think you're going?"
It's easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it.
(Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Using Dialect

(Note: The following is pulled from a chapter on speech from my book Storyworld First.)

Dialect is the way a person speaks that is distinguished by his culture, social group, or the region in which he lives. His speech pattern is different from other varieties of the same language by vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

Authors change the way certain characters talk to set them apart from other characters. This is very important in historical genres, whether they be straight historical fiction or speculative varieties like historical fantasy or alternate history. Here are four examples of historical or regional dialect done well:

“. . . Don't let me hear no more of you, or you shall feel some more of me. D’ye hear?”
“I warn’t doing no harm,” Young Jerry protested, rubbing his cheek.
“Drop it then,” said Mr. Cruncher; “I won’t have none of your no harms. Get a top of that there seat, and look at the crowd.”
—From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, a novel drawn from historical events of the revolutionary period in France. Jerry Cruncher speaks with a common dialect, full of slang and satire.

“This is not to be borne! Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”
“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”
“It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”
“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”
—From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Most of Austen’s main characters are English gentry during Regency England.
“I'm — er — not supposed ter do magic, strictly speakin’. I was allowed ter do a bit ter follow yeh an’ get yer letters to yeh an’ stuff — one o’ the reasons I was so keen ter take on the job.”
“Why aren't you supposed to do magic?” asked Harry.
“Oh, well — I was at Hogwarts meself but I — er — got expelled, ter tell yeh the truth. In me third year. They snapped me wand in half an’ everything.”
—From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. Hagrid’s accent is a contemporary West-country English accent.
“Now, you vill come to verk for me here for eight months und zen you vill buy vone off my camelts, und I vill teach you to train zem and you vill get two vild vones und dat vill be dat. I haf just de animal for you. He hass only vone eye but, ha, dat does not matter—he is stronk and reliable enough for you, ya.”
—From Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The speaker, Kurt Posel, is a contemporary German Australian.

If you need to write a certain dialect, study it by reading works from that time period or by listening to people speak on YouTube or in movies and transcribing their words. 

If you are merely seeking to tweak a person's language, you might play with spelling, word choice, or syntax to create different dialects. Here are some that I’ve done or seen done in fiction:

•Stuttering by breaking up words with hyphens, and dragging out or repeating letters like Ts, Ps, Ss, or whichever letter(s) you choose to have your character stumble over. For example: P-pleassse p-passs the s-ssalt.
•Avoiding contractions to give a more formal tone to dialogue.
•Replacing the G from –ing endings with an apostrophe.
•Lisps shown by replacing all the Ss with a TH.
•The use of bad grammar like ain’t, gonna, and wanna.
•Word choice. I’m from Alaska, and we Alaskans refer to snow mobiles as “snow machines.” I’ve been mocked repeatedly for this. I also still refer to hair bands as “rubber bands” or “hair ties,” while teens call them “ponytails.” Word choice also differs between generations.
•Pronunciation. I always say the word elementary as “elemen-tair-ee,” whereas my husband says, “elemen-tree.”
•Foreign words. I have a Latina friend who, whenever she says a Spanish word, says that word in a thick accent. And she also uses some foreign words over the English ones, like when she refers to her brother as mi hermano.
•The syntax or word order when writing foreigners speaking English. Yoda also speaks with a rearranged word order, for example, "Help you, I will."

When I worked on the Russian characters for my novel The New Recruit, I listened to many Russians speaking English, and I took notes, sometimes even transcribing their words so that I could see the word order they used. Here is an example of a Russian speaking English from The New Recruit:

“These three apartment are for you stay.” He motioned to the door behind him, then the ones on either side. “Boys will be taking first room, girls will be taking last. Between is kitchen, TV, and room for Stopplecamp family. When you are settled, come to kitchen. My wife is preparing dinner.”

The risk in writing dialects into your character’s voice is that some are so difficult to read that one must read them again and again to gain understanding. And that pulls readers out of the story.

We don’t want to do that to our readers. Fiction is about immersing them in our world. When we do that well, we get emails from readers who accuse us of keeping them up all night. And we want that. We want lots of it.

Take care not to overdo this. A little goes a long way. Don’t give a unique dialect to every character, but make sure that every word you allow your character to speak matches his or her voice. And also make sure you’re consistent with each character’s dialogue, because inconsistencies can also pull readers from your story.

Author Voice

And author voice is the unique way that an author combines words, syntax, punctuation, diction, dialogue, and tone, with plot, character development, pacing, theme, etc. It is a style that becomes exclusive to a particular author throughout that author's body of work. If you were to do an impersonation of a good friend, you would choose words and a voice that is somewhat different from your own. That is sort of how it works from one author voice to another. The way a person puts words together on a page to create a story can start to take on a familiar pattern.

A writer's voice takes time to develop. Some find their voice more quickly than others. One author might write several books and still not find that rhythm, while another might sit down and nail it on their first try. (So not fair!)

When I think about my own writing voice, I recognize several habits in my style. While I might write some funny characters, I don't write comedy. My tone is usually serious. I like to go deep. There is always some danger in my books. My pacing is often slow to start, which is something I always mean to change and never get around to. I love sentence fragments. I love metaphors. I love one-sentence paragraphs. I love sarcasm. I love storyworlds and spend time creating them. And I especially like writing flawed characters who suffer the consequences of their choices and grow in some way. All of those things are part of Jill Williamson's author voice.

If you try to "find" your author voice on purpose, you'll likely drive yourself crazy. Don't bother. Just write. Continue to put words together on a page, over and over and you'll find a system, a rhythm, a pattern that works for you. Your stories will start to develop a style. You can't force it to happen, and you certainly can't develop a writing voice if you're not cranking out a lot of words. So relax. Sit down every day and write, write, write! Don't stress over whether or not you have an author voice. You do. It will come out with practice. And when it does, know that it is your voice, no one else's. No one else sounds exactly like you, and no one can tell a story just like you, either.

Archived posts for character voices:
How to Build Unique Character Voices
How To Describe a Voice

Archived posts on a writer's voice
A Writer's Voice
The Voice of a Storyteller
How To Develop Your Writing Voice
How You Say It

Assignment Time

Do you struggle with making your characters sound different? If not, what are some ways you have made your characters sound unique?


  1. Making my characters sound different is most definitely the thing I struggle with most. All of my characters tend to sound the same and make choices that benefit the story. Sometimes I have tried to make my characters sound different, but in the end , they all sound the same again. This post will really help me. Thank you so much for the post!

  2. Ha...I love the I Love Lucy and Get Smart references!

    A couple novels ago, I finally stumbled upon my author voice, which has made me eternally happy. (To those still searching for it--trust me, you'll know it when it happens and it will happen.) As for character voice, I find that I break through about halfway through my WIP. I have to go back in edits to make sure everything sounds right, but it's so worth it when my characters finally start sounding like real people.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson! I'll be gone for about a month, so this was my last GTW post for a while. Happy writing, everyone!

    1. I love that you got the Get Smart reference! It takes me a while to get to know my characters too. Have a lovely month!

  3. Dialogue has never been my strong point, but on my current novel (a western) I've been able to somewhat develop each character's voice. I didn't really want Apryl (my protagonist) using a lot of slang, so I decided that her mom (Rachel) was born in the east and moved west shortly after marrying. Rachel still hasn't gotten used to the slang of the west, and often corrects her family's grammar. At this point, they rarely use slang when she's around. Since Apryl spends the most time with her mom on a daily basis, she doesn't use slang much anyway; but because her brother spends a lot of time with their dad and the ranch hands working cattle, so he uses slang when Rachel is not present.
    As far as my author voice, I think it's developing fairly well. I don't really have any humor other than sarcasm, and I'm normally more serious.
    Thanks for another awesome post Jill!!!

    P.S. I Love Lucy is awesome!

  4. Anne of Green Gables! Yes!
    I am starting to write a little sloppily in first drafts. But, anyway, my character is quiet (I'm not the most quiet person) and she doesn't say much. She has no accent, and uses the "right" words.
    I don't have TOO much trouble writing characters who aren't like me, because I just choose who I'd like to be like. Anne (the SHE mentioned before) is not sarcastic and she's serious. I can be sarcastic. Anne is a bit mysterious too, to add an interesting view to her character.
    Note: Young maidens in the Medieval periods probably would not be sarcastic.
    Thank you for a great post, Jill! ☺

  5. Thanks so much for this post! Making my characters voices is definitely something I need to work on. I'll make sure to refer back to this post when I'm editing. Thank you so much for this series, it's such a huge help!

  6. In the current story I'm writing, I noticed how different my characters are. I try to make them as different as possible. It's really interesting. And I started a short story earlier and they're all rich and fancy and all. It's crazy how simple it is.

  7. It tends to vary for me, sometimes I find it harder than others. For example, in my main WIP, my main character is German and spends most of the novel speaking English. While he would have an accent, I don't know if I should write it in, because he's in basically every scene and I think it might get annoying. Also, he's pretty much fluent in English. It's just he would have a German accent. That's one of the hardest ones to do, but I've had a few that I find easy. For example, I find it pretty easy to write Welsh characters, because I'm from Wales.
    I think the idea of listening to people with the accent talking is a smart one. Like I said, I find Welsh accents easy because I'm constantly hearing them and I often use Welsh terms myself.

    1. In cases like that I always just mention the accent every so often, or where he was from. Maybe make a joke about it, or sometimes when the character is startled have them blurt out an exclamation of surprise in his first language. Not super often, but often enough to keep it in the reader's mind.

  8. This was SO HELPFUL!! Thank you very much for this post!

  9. Thanks so much for the awesome post! I have struggeld with character voice in the past, but with the one I'm doing #WeWriteBOoks with, it was easy. My MC, Irie, her voice just came to me from the very beginning. It was a nice change, and really fun to write. :D