Writing Distinct Voices

I have fallen in love with so many characters over the years. Their voices are haunting, hopeful, sassy, sarcastic, kind, sensitive, and peaceful. They are each unique combinations of emotions, background, interests, and learning. Whether their voices come out only when they speak or when the story is told from their perspective, their history, personality, hopes, fears, and desires come through their words. Their growth and change are seen.

I love Harry’s sass and generosity, Ron’s acceptance and excitement, Hermione’s learning and care for others, Katniss’s confusion and determination, Rhona’s rebelliousness and hope, Ellard’s guilt and desire to make things right, Violet’s ingenuity, Klaus’s memory, Samwise’s courage, Frodo’s desire to bear his burden alone, and Arwen’s defiance and never-ending belief in herself and others.

I don’t know what the specific processes were for writing these characters or their voices. But I do know some of the things that I think about when trying to write: time period, location, background, class, interests and hobbies, fears, beliefs, personalities, desires, and education.

Each of these can greatly affect how people speak and communicate. They can cause different idioms to be used, changes in attitude and tone, different vocabulary, types and levels of understanding, and various styles of social interaction.

All of these things can all greatly affect what vocabulary and idioms are used. Languages and meanings of words and phrases change over time. Some languages lack words for things that are not recognisable in their locale. A person’s background can give them different types of vocabulary or lead them towards certain topics more. Class and changes in class can create great differences in how people interact with others and what they say. Interests and hobbies can lend strange catch phrases and idioms as well as lead to differences in attitude and excitement levels. Beliefs and religions can bring different ways of interacting and talking about the world as well as provide various idioms and types of understanding others and environments. Education can completely change someone’s vocabulary and styles of understanding the world and other. Fears, beliefs, personalities, and desires can make a huge impact on how people speak in different situations as well as how they choose their words and speak to other people.

In The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, a character says “Don’t give me the fish-eye.” This phrase doesn’t exist today, at least not that I’ve ever seen. It’s also used in David Lannarck, Midget by George S. Harney, though it’s spelled ‘fisheye’ there. It means ‘an unfriendly or suspicious look’ according to Dictionary.com. Now we would probably just say “suspicious look,” “stink-eye,” or “side-eye.”

The word ‘tannoy’ isn’t used in American English at all, but it is used in British English. It’s used in Carrie Hope Fletcher’s On the Other Side and is a type of loudspeaker essentially. In the States, we’d most likely call it an intercom.

In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak does a fantastic job at blending German and English as well as showing differences between how words can be interpreted by people of varying circumstances. From the overarching reaction to the term ‘communist’ throughout 1940s Germany and Liesel’s personal reaction to how the characters continued using German words, such as ‘frau’ and ‘saumensch,’ the book pulled me into a different use of language than I had seen before and helped my think of the ways words and phrases might vary between ages, social classes, cultures, and religions.


What are your tips on writing distinct voices? Let me know in the comments!

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