Making Characters "Sound Different"--Why so hard; how to make it easy?:

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Responsible adult
Sorry for the grammar wonk of the title, but I had to get across the entire concept of the thread in a limited number of characters. But on to the topic!

There's a common problem I see a lot of writers struggling with—both among the people I know who like to write, and sometimes in published works too. It's the fact that all their characters "sound the same." All of their dialogue reads very similarly, giving the characters very similar "voices" and making them hard to tell apart. This is generally something you want to avoid, right? After all, the way people talk is important to their characterization, and the way a character talk says a lot about them. On a more mundane and technical level, it helps your reader identify who is speaking in conversation-heavy scenes without having to rely on dialogue tags to figure everything out. But, for one reason or another, this is something I've seen a lot of people struggle with.

My first question (or topic of discussion, as it were): What makes this so difficult for people? I imagine there are different reasons for different people, and I sort of want to explore those in general. I'm not certain, but if I were to hazard a guess, I'd theorize that one of the main reasons is because writing dialogue sort of means you have to change your natural writing style. When you're writing prose, especially third-person prose, you're using your "own" voice. That's the voice that's most natural for you to adopt when writing. But when you write dialogue for other characters, you're forced to adopt a different tone of voice that doesn't necessarily belong to you in the same way. If you don't stop to consider that, you'll keep writing characters' dialogue in the same voice you use for yourself, the author and narrator—thus making all the characters sound similar. But that's only a theory, and I'm curious as to what other authors think about their reasons for this and their struggles with this, if they have any.

As for alleviating the problem... I have a method for it, and if what my betas tell me is true, it gets great results for me, but I don't honestly know if it'd work for anybody else. Basically, I assign each character a specific "voice" in my head. Like, a voice-actor kind of voice. Sometimes I'll use well-known actor's voices if they're commonly associated with a character type similar to the one I'm writing (like Patrick Warburton for a manly, Dumb Muscle type), sometimes I'll just use the voices of people I know (one character from my current project has a "voice" based on several girls I knew in middle school), and sometimes I'll just make a voice up. And as I'm writing the character's dialogue, I'll picture all the dialogue being said in that voice, and I see if it "sounds right." It works amazingly well for me—I can "hear" a lot of the dialogue perfectly, and can usually tweak it to sound right. But then again, I'm the sort of author who just writes the thing to begin with, and I don't know how well these sorts of character-motivated writing styes work for everyone.

One thing I do know, though, is that this shows up with depressing frequency in published works. Maybe it's just some kind of noticing bias, but it seems to occur frequently enough that I'm always impressed or pleasantly surprised when I see a book that does manage to have nicely different-sounding characters. But then again, maybe I'm recognizing it just because I appreciate a solidly-told story, and it's not about how frequently or infrequently it appears. Or maybe I've read too many subpar books recently. Who knows.

Your thoughts, fellows?
"Proto-Indo-European makes the damnedest words related. It's great. It's the Kevin Bacon of etymology." ~Madrugada
2 nrjxll6th Feb 2013 09:43:46 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
I'd say your theory is pretty much dead on, at least as far as I'm concerned. It requires an active effort to write a character's voice, while prose comes without thinking.

As for how to combat it, I've tried hearing-the-voice thing, but it never really works - partly because I frequently have trouble finding the "right voice", and partly just because it's still an effort even when I do. The best way that I've found is to simply get used to writing a character. It's one of the primary reasons I participate in the Character Development Threads, and it's maybe the reason I write little side pieces and in-character notes so often. It's especially useful, once you get a basic grasp on them, to write the same scene or speech as seen/spoken by several different characters and compare them.

edited 6th Feb '13 9:48:11 PM by nrjxll

The problem is, making characters sound different requires the writer to use different manners of speaking based on dialect, education, and general preference, when most writers are settled into one single manner of speech—their own.

A key difference, even with the same standard language, is vocabulary. "Pop" is used to describe carbonated drinks in some regions of the US, while "soda" is used in other places. This is fairly easy to keep consistent with some effort, as it's find-and-replace, but you need to study dialects. There isn't usually a primer for those unless they deviate so wildly as to be indistinguishable.

Another part is grammar, specifically word order with some punctuation. If used properly, it can give a high degree of variance. Mostly it's used to denote a non-native speaker. However, it is also one of the harder aspects to study (since it requires knowledge of at least basic grammar for any different languages) and similarly difficult to pull off properly without devolving into word salad.

For example:
"Then where is it now?"

"Where, then, is it now?"

"Then, it is where now?"

Basically, language is a puzzle with the same pieces in different orders, or with extra pieces.
4 nrjxll6th Feb 2013 10:36:23 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
[up]I don't think it's really a question of knowing this as much as it is actually doing it.
5 Wolf10667th Feb 2013 12:25:36 AM from New Zealand , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
I agree with nrjxll, Freezair, your theory pretty much nails it.

I deal with character voices by basing them on people I know and then imagine how that person would say something.

I don't do it all the time, as in I'll write the first draft and get down the basic dialogue - the characters respond/react to the situation or each other and dialogue ensues but I'm just writing quickly to get it down. The character says this or that because it's in keeping with that character's desires, motivations, personality and the story progresses.

Then I go back later and thrash the dialogue into shape by reading what's on the page then rewriting it as the character would express it.

So "No, I would have thought it would obvious to any one" may well become "Yeah, nah. I'd've thought it'd be obvious." or maybe they'd say I'd'a' instead or thrown in some slang.

If I'm on a roll and the characters are "coming to life" I'll find that even in the first draft they're speaking in their own voices and not much reworking is required.

Other times, quite a bit of "thrashing" is needed.

All my German characters sound like one of three people - two of whom are from the same region of Germany so their slang is very similar.

edited 7th Feb '13 12:26:05 AM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
6 judasmartel7th Feb 2013 12:44:17 AM from Philippines , Relationship Status: [TOP SECRET]
The Dark Knight
I would imagine my characters as real people or anime characters with voices, then imagine the way they talk.

That way, my characters would never "sound the same", depending on the personality and size of the cast.
nrjxll: Well, no one actually brought it up. So I erred on the side of caution.
Lately I've been going one step further and actually reading aloud sections of dialogue in as close as I can approximate to the voice I'm going for. I'm certainly no voice actor but it does help.

The writing group I've been going to lately seems to generally advocate reading ALL of what you write aloud at least once, to help in the editing process. It's surprisingly easy to mentally skim over things that don't quite work, but if you're reading aloud, you're more likely to catch it.
9 JHM7th Feb 2013 12:46:18 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
I talk in different voices and accents when I'm coming up with dialogue based on how I imagine each character sounding. Usually I do this while pacing around the first floor of my house. Sometimes I assume different postures or walk differently while this is happening, or act out particular gestures relevant to the scene.

Why, yes, I was an amateur actor. How could you tell?
10 resetlocksley7th Feb 2013 01:58:58 PM from Alone in the dark , Relationship Status: Only knew I loved her when I let her go
Shut up!
I often "assign" actors (especially in fanfiction) to portray certain characters in my head while I write. I then try to imagine the actor speaking that character's lines, which helps get a feel for that character since I'm hearing his or her voice. It seems to work for me.
Fear is a superpower.
11 Wolf10667th Feb 2013 02:08:59 PM from New Zealand , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
The reading out loud - and even putting on accents if relevant for the characters - is a vital part of my process for thrashing the dialogue into shape. I've got to actually hear it flow to ensure it sounds like the person I have in mind. Then I write it as the character would say it.

I'm thinking of coming up with some means of giving each character's speech a distinct, easy to spot, look (e.g. colour) when writing the first draft so that when I go back later I can "get in character" for each in turn and go through the entire MS and locate the relevant speech quickly for "thrashing" - and change the text back to default (or to uniform "blue for speech" for later EDITS-style colour coding) while I'm at it.

That way I'll be able to do each character in turn rather than having to chop and change between characters as I go through the MS.

It'd mean more passes through the MS - one for each character - but being able to quickly locate that character's speech would speed that process up.

I so love word-processing software. If it weren't for the ability to bash stuff out then go back and thrash it into shape, I'd still be staring at my old typewriter trying to get a page that's not covered in strike-outs and trying to get everything perfect in the first go.
Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
12 Matues7th Feb 2013 08:39:35 PM from eye on the horizon , Relationship Status: Having tea with Cthulhu
I actually end up feeling if certain ways of speaking are correct or not. I might rewrite some dialogue because I felt a certain word doesn't fit their vocabulary..

Responsible adult
I think one thing to keep in mind, though, is that although speaking in dialect is one way to distinguish characters, it isn't the only way. (Well, using the broad strokes definition of "dialect," anyway, dialect as most people think of it.) After all, you could have a setting where everyone is likely to speak in the same dialect, like a big, old family in the Deep South.

Reading out loud also helps dialogue to sound more natural in general. If it feels right to say, it usually feels right to read, too.
"Proto-Indo-European makes the damnedest words related. It's great. It's the Kevin Bacon of etymology." ~Madrugada
Interesting topic.I remember reading novels where I found dialogues boring? bland? but I couldn't pinpoint why that is.Now that I think about it,I think that was exactly it,like the same person was pronouncing different lines. I think the reason could be that some writers think that characterization is shown through emotional reaction to the situations.Atleast,this is the impression I got while browsing various writer forums.Most writers focus on how emotional or unemotional the character is,and which emotion is her primal trait,so they probably think that's enough due to inexperience.

Is there a way for ESL writers to avoid this problem?Are there any articles about this topic with specific examples of good dialogue?Just like it was mentioned before,it's not really the issue of slang,it's something much more subtle.
15 Madrugada13th Feb 2013 02:35:38 PM , Relationship Status: In season
Vocabulary and syntax is really the heart of fitting a character's voice to them. Say you have three different characters:

Alice is a very smart, very careful person, who like things to be orderly and precise. She like to have things clear. Bob is a rather casual person, he just takes what comes and deals with it. As long as he's not inconvenienced he doesn't much care about what's going on around him. Charlie is a street kid, mostly uneducated and belligerent.

All three of them have just heard Dan outline his plan for saving the youth center from the evil land-owner who wants to tear it down and build a quickmart. All three of them think that Dan's plan is not very good. How do they express that?

Alice: "I don't think that would be a very smart thing to do. We're likely to be arrested if we break in, and chaining ourselves to the tables won't do any good; they can pick up the tables and us."

Bob: "I don't think it'll work, but, whatever."

Charlie: "That's the stupidest idea! What makes you think that's gonna work? Dumb. It's just DUMB."

edited 13th Feb '13 2:36:49 PM by Madrugada

...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
Thank you Madrugada!That was very helpful.
17 Madrugada13th Feb 2013 08:07:25 PM , Relationship Status: In season
Glad I could
...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
Came back for this very question. I'll try Madrugada's idea tomorrow and see what happens. I think I should also ad that Madrugada's dialog is what I would have 10 minutes ago considered too over the top. Now it seems like I need to go at least that far to separate the voices in my head.

Madrugada's post is excellent, but an aside. You should also consider the possible contexts a character would speak in. The same character might respond to a bad idea with, "wow... just shut up and let the grown-ups talk," when speaking to a disliked ally, but when speaking to a superior, substitute "er, boss, you might want to reconsider that..."

edited 9th Mar '13 9:37:34 PM by KillerClowns

20 SalmonPunch11th Mar 2013 10:28:18 AM from Connecticutt, USA
I never asked for this
My only advice is to give every character a fitting "voice actor" based on voices you easily recognise, in your head. For example theres a chef character in a story, and in my head I thought he would sound kind of like Crispin Freeman. If it didnt sound right when imagined in Crispin Freemans voice, then I would go back and alter the line.

Watch people talk, and notice the differences in their body language and verbal trends. when you arent around friends and dont want to creep, watch yourself and how you talk or react through body language.

Dialouge is difficult to master, there sadly is no "easy" way. Just keep practicing.

Finally, remember that people act completely different around friends than around strangers or enemies.
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