Stale Voices

Recently, I was reading a thriller by a bestselling author I’ve long been a fan of and I found a problem: the characters pretty much all sounded the same. The main character sounded an awful lot like the detective, who sounded like the corporate executive, who sounded like the author as the narrator and so on.
If you have been writing for a long time, that often becomes a problem: all of your characters start to sound like you, and as you age, the character voices get more and more stale.
So here are some tips on how to handle this common problem:

  1. If you have an established cast of characters for a series, you may find that you will need to create diverse voices for minor characters. This can be fun and easy to do, especially for characters that make quick appearances. Make sure to vary your characters by age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, education level, background, intelligence, political and gang affiliation, schooling, and so on.
  2. Watch out for cliché voices. Back in the 1930s and 1940s people doing radio plays used to have Irish, French, Southern, English, Scottish, etc. voices so that they could play several characters in the same play. If you write using those clichés, you’ll sound silly. Don’t use the same voices over and over.
  3. As you write different characters, look at lengthening or shortening the sentence length for each character. For example, if you have a main character who averages 15 words in a sentence, consider introducing a character who is more eloquent—say an analyst who speaks in 30-word sentences—or bring in one who is more abrupt and only speaks in ten-word sentences.  You can also increase the average number of syllables per word for your more loquacious characters. Lots of people speak in monosyllables.
  4. Some writers draw from friends or acquaintances in creating characters. Others like to draw from the works of other writers or from actors in specific roles that they like. I once was on a panel where three authors said that they like to channel Jack Nicholson for their novels.
  5. If you want to create a minor character with an interesting voice, consider going to acting sites to research the voices. For example, if you want a Boston cop, you can find actors who will teach you to speak Boston pretty easily. Don’t forget to Google for books and articles so you can discover interesting phrases and unique words. Every subculture has its own terminology.
  6. It isn’t just the words that change. People speak in different cadences, tones, and intonations. They use different verb forms and have different definitions. Does your character drink “pop” or “soda?” Do they wear a “jacket” or a “windbreaker?” Does your speaker have a smoker’s rough voice, or does your logger have an effeminate voice? Listen for ways to change things up. And consider how to give the character unique gestures and movements when they speak.
  7. It’s not just character voices that get boring. Sometimes the narrative voice of the author gets stale. Consider creating a new narrator for your book. For example, instead of writing as yourself, create a new persona for a novel and write from that person’s point of view. You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re doing, just do it.

Several writers and critics have noted that a great novel is often like a symphony. Dozens of voices from around the world help create the illusion that there is a whole larger universe in the writer’s world. Your goal is to make your writing sound fun and interesting when you do readings or get into audiobooks. Go for it!


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