One of the challenges in creating characters for stories is developing a “voice” (or way of speaking) for each of them. In real life, people don’t all sound the same, and neither should well-crafted characters: they ought to be distinctive, so that a reader can usually be able to tell who’s saying what, even if the author doesn’t identify them.
As an example, if you’re familiar with the first Star Wars movie, you don’t need to see onscreen who’s speaking—or even need to actually hear them speak—to recognize which of these characters would most likely say:
“I want to come with you to with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
“Somebody has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”
“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
(Then there’s this)
Developing those voices is, of course, easier said, than done.
I’ve been writing fiction since I was in the 4th grade, creating lots of characters along the way. I started running games and campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons (and other role-playing games) when I was in high school, which gave me the opportunity to make hundreds of characters, most of them non-player characters (NPCs) that interacted with the players. In either situation—written stories or interactive gaming—getting the “voices” right—not just what they sounded like, but what they said, and how they said it— was crucial. I used two methods to come up with character “voices.”
The quicker, easier one is what I call the “casting” method, and I used it all the time for gaming. When creating the character, I imagined what actor/actress (or rarely, a person I knew in real life) I would cast to play that part, and then I would act out him/her accordingly.
For example, one NPC I came up with was a laconic innkeeper with a violent past that he had moved on from. His inn was located in a rough part of the city, and he carried himself with a reserve that made it clear—to player characters and other NPCs—that he was not to be trifled with. When portraying him live during games, I took my inspiration from Javier Bardem’s assassin Anton Chigurh from this scene in No Country for Old Men:
My innkeeper did not flip any coins to decide if he would kill someone, nor did he badger player- characters with antagonistic questions, but he had the same standoffish manner. Like Chigurh, my innkeeper didn’t care for unnecessary conversation, and responded brusquely—if at all—to any personal questions (such as why he had seven tally marks tattooed onto his arm).
The other way for creating characters, which I use for novels and other long pieces of writing, I call the “discovery” method, and it requires more patience. To start, I come up with and write down some facts (usually two or three paragraphs) about who the character is, including the following:
- Education level
I write down what has happened to them in the past, and what is their most important goal that they want to accomplish as the story unfolds. Sometimes, I know one before the other. Sometimes, what I think they want doesn’t make sense given what’s happened to them before, or vice versa. Hopefully, I can nail those down before I’ve written too much and have to undertake lengthy revisions.
As I’m writing, I put myself inside their head and “speak” as I imagine they might, sort of like method acting. I don’t decide ahead of time what diction they’ll use: instead, as I progress through the novel, I “discover” who this character is, almost as if I’m getting to know a real person.
Invariably, their “voice” becomes more and more distinct, and often, it changes quite a bit from when I first started writing them. In that case, I have to go back and tweak their earlier dialogue to make it sound like it’s the same person.
This is not to say that I let the characters evolve any old way: like a gardener that winds a vine up a trellis, I’ll point them in certain directions, or establish what they *wouldn’t* say.
For example, Juanita, the mother to the titular girls of my novel Dragontamer’s Daughters, is educated and of noble birth: she has an extensive vocabulary, and rarely, if ever, uses contractions in her speech.
The Rottweiler Jake in Lost Dogs has had his tail docked, which limits his ability to “speak” (the dogs in my novel mostly communicate non-verbally), so when he does “talk” (which isn’t often), it’s in simple words and short sentences.
Also, these two methods I use are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I’ll start off with an idea of what actor I would cast to play a character, and over time, that character’s voice changes. Sometimes, I’ll “cast” a voice that’s already evolving to give it some guidance.
For my latest book, This Wasted Land (to be published in 2018), my feisty teenage heroine Alyx is prone to using lots of slang, foul language, and starting sentences and questions with “So” (as in, “So, what’s the deal with that douchebag?”).
She’ll arbitrarily drop verbs, nouns, or articles. Sometimes, she speaks in very short sentences, sometimes in run-ons, especially when she’s under extreme stress. I didn’t set out having Alyx speak in a particular way: her “voice” just flows out of me like that. Here’s a scene early in the book, when she’s riding her motorcycle with her boyfriend Sam, and they come upon a traffic jam.
A semi lying on its side across both lanes. Blue and red lights: cops, fire trucks, EMT ambulance. Cars backed up in front of us. I go through the gears, slow down, drift onto the shoulder. Maryland state trooper up there by the wreck sees me, shakes his head, waves for me to get back onto the road. I brake, stop, shrug, point past the truck. He shakes his head again, mouths No, waves me back, more insistent this time. Another asshole, just like all the Maryland state troopers. I give him the finger, then pull back in behind a black Dodge Avenger.
Soon after, Sam is snatched by a witch, who carries him off to another world, a cold, gray wasteland. Alyx follows, and meets Mike Fernandez. With his sarcastic tone and “me-first” attitude, he starts off a lot like Sawyer from the TV show Lost. Underneath Mike’s gruff, abrasive exterior was a cold, prickly interior:
As he comes to know Alyx, he takes on more a protective, parental tone, similar to Logan as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. His exterior hasn’t changed, but his interior isn’t so cold in later chapters. He’s still a jerk, though.
In the scene below, Alyx has recently met Mike, and is asking him about the strange world she’s found herself in.
The wind comes by, softer this time, a low huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrhhhh that only swirls the dust. But it’s cold and makes me shiver. “Does where we are—this world, whatever it is—have a name?”
“Not that I know of.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Has your boyfriend ever told you that you run your mouth a lot?”
“No. Usually he talks more than me.”
“Christ on a stick. You two must be quite the couple.”
“And he’s smart.”
“I can’t possibly care any less.”
“Then why are you helping me find him?”
“I’m not. I’m letting you tag along so that when the next monster tries to eat me, I can push you in front of it and run like hell the other way.”
“What makes you think I’m joking?”
“You wouldn’t really do that.”
“Yeah, I would.”
“Then why did you tell me? Now I know what your plan is.”
“I told you so that you’d think I wouldn’t do it, because I told you I would.”
“You are the most obnoxious person I have ever met in my life.”
“You need to get out more. Meet some people.” He stops, stares ahead. “Hmmm.” I try to see what he’s looking at.
“What?” I keep walking.
He looks around—left, right, behind us, left again, right again. Points to something ahead. “Hurry.” Starts running that way.
Later on, they meet Paddoch, who has multiple deformities and doesn’t speak English well (it’s not even his second, third, or fourth language), so he struggles with vocabulary and grammar. As his “voice” evolved, I decided that he always puts nouns at the beginning of sentences, direct objects right after them, and verbs at the end. He can’t conjugate verbs in English, so he uses them in the infinitive (“Alyx food to want?”).
His dialogue can be difficult to write so that the reader understands him, and I try very hard not to make him sound like Yoda:
“Paddoch,” I say. It sounds kinda like pad and dock, but at the end, it rhymes with loch, like that lake in Scotland that supposedly has a monster.
He looks up.
“The scary woman….” I say.
“Freydis,” he answers.
“You said she’s with Ōth.” He nods. “She’s…what? His girlfriend or something?”
“His bitch,” Mike says.
“She Ōth to belong.”
“What do you mean?”
“She Ōth’s threll.”
“‘Thrall’ is the word I think he’s going for,” Mike says. “A slave.” He holds his hands up, tries to pull his wrists apart but can’t, like there’s chains on them.
Paddoch nods. “Freydis Ōth’s slave to be.”
“And who is Ōth?” I ask.
Ōth (pronounced like the word for a vow or promise) is a major antagonist who appears toward the end of This Wasted Land, and I’m still developing him. One inspiration for his voice is the character of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem again—can you tell I’m a fan?) from this scene in Skyfall. Like Silva, Ōth has a patrician bearing, and when he speaks, it’s as if he’s a cat toying with a mouse in his paws.
While I’m writing dialogue for characters, sometimes I’ll throw in expressions and verbal mannerisms I’ve picked up from people I know. Like my late father-in-law, the dragontamer in my first novel has the habit of muttering, “I’ll tell the world”—another way of saying, “Can you believe this?” when something incredible happens.
Cynthia, Sam’s sister in TWL, will sometimes reply with, “Fact,” which I got from my brother-in-law Drew:
It was just like a Kent Island football game, only bigger. All the guys took off their hats. Lots of people put their hands over their hearts. I just stood there. The girl started singing, and her voice was like a princess from those Disney movies.
Everyone but me sang along with her, and when it got to the O, say does that star-spangled banner still wave part, everyone shouted “O!” real loud, just like they did at the Kent Island games. Sam and Cynthia and his mom did, too.
After that Christina chick was done and everyone clapped and we sat down, I asked Sam, “What the hell is that ‘O’ thing you all do?”
“It’s for the Orioles.”
“The baseball team,” Cynthia said. “Tell me that you can’t be more stupid than my brother. Even he knows that.”
“I know we’re at a football game,” I told her. “Apparently, none of the rest of you do.”
“It’s a Baltimore thing,” Sam said.
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Fact,” Cynthia said.
More about TWL some other time….
Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy. His latest work-in-progress, This Wasted Land, a dark fantasy novel, will be published in 2018.
Kenton is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, (like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons) based on Navajo culture and belief. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.
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