All These Voices In My Head Sound Like Me

I’ve always thought that dialogue was my strong suit with writing.  I don’t really know if that’s the case, because I’ve never had anybody tell me that, but when I wrote dialogue, I felt confident about it.  Meanwhile, even still, if I have to describe something, usually I start scowling and write something really bare-bones that I’ll need to add to later because I want to just get past the description and move on already.

Why is it I felt confident with dialogue?

Part of it is that I would sometimes listen to people talking, and I’d take note of it.  I’m not really sure if anybody notices this, but I picked up on that everybody has a different way of speaking.  Sometimes it’s obvious things like—when this person talks, she moves her hands and gestures with everything.  But there’s also smaller differences, in the way they word sentences.  Because there are so many different ways you can say the same thing, and different ways will give it different meaning and different personality.

When I noticed this, I noticed that all of my characters said things the same way—the way I spoke.  They worded things the exact same way I would word it.  And in some ways, I don’t think this was truly a big problem, because they are my characters, but it makes it hard to make them unique.

Because, see.  I think the general rule with dialogue is that if you can get away with no dialogue tag, you don’t use a dialogue tag.  And the way you do that is to make it really obvious who’s talking by what they’re saying.  And if all of the characters sound the same, how can you do this?

You make them sound different.

So I started listening to the different ways people worded things and tried to pick up on it, and make my characters’ voices sound more unique.  To this day, I honestly don’t really know how well I did, but it was an important thing to do, listening to people talk, I think.  And it gave me an interesting skill, too.  I’m pretty good at telling when a character—or a even a real person—doesn’t sound like themselves.

Making characters sound different doesn’t have to be real drastic.  This doesn’t mean dropping all contractions for a regal character, or adding an accent that makes the words unpronounceable, or using “thee” and “thou”.  Not that you can’t do those things, but you don’t use that to make them sound unique.  (I do have a character that doesn’t use any contractions.  It sounds really awkward and stilted, so I wouldn’t recommend it.  But she’s a computer, so I can get away with it, I think.)

Instead, you do it in small ways.  This is like the difference between saying “How are you?” and “What’s up?”  Or when someone calls your name, I’ve heard people respond with “What?” and some respond with “Yeah?” Or even “Huh?”  Or the difference between saying the full “I don’t know” versus “I dunno”.

On the opposite note, as important as it is to make characters have unique voices, it’s also important, I think, to make sure that the characters still all sound like they belong to the same world and that they all fit with your writing style.  I’ve honestly never had a character say “What’s up?” because I never say that.  The phrase never honestly actually crosses my mind.  (Probably doesn’t help that my favorite way to respond to that question is to just smartly report whatever happens to be above my head at the time.  Nobody’s asked me what’s up in a long time, hehe…)

And also.  People tend to talk like whoever they hang around with the most.  So many times I’ve said something, and then thought that I sounded like a friend of mine or even one of my siblings.  It happens.  So remember that with characters.

So to conclude this post, here’s a random dialogue prompt that…sort of relates to this topic.

See, it relates!  Because manners can affect how somebody speaks, right?

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8 thoughts on “All These Voices In My Head Sound Like Me

  1. Some really good points here! I know I’ve been reading books sometimes and thinking that it’s weird when *all* characters use the same linguistic ticks. Particularly if the characters come from different cultures / regions.

    1. Thanks. Yes, exactly… it’s not a huge deal, usually, I think, and you can probably write a decent book without paying a whole lot of attention to this, but… sometimes it’s the little details like this that’s what makes the book spectacular.

      1. Right! Example: in GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, EVERYONE from every possible culture, geography, and upbringing, uses the phrase “______ to wash it down” when they drink something along with a meal. It’s a great book series and I love it desperately, but I can’t help but notice it and it takes me out of the story for a split second.

        1. THEN SAELAS WILL BE WHAT’S UP INSTEAD, ‘CAUSE HE’S ALSO TALLER THAN ME.
          AND WHO KNOWS, MAYBE THE CLIFF FACE IS A REALLY TALL UNICORN.

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