Exercise: Utterly Distinct Voices

Posted: September 2, 2013 by Robert Paul Gmelin in Robert's Words

Why hello there! I’m Robert Paul Gmelin. I haven’t actually posted here until now because… well, I just haven’t. Not gonna make excuses. I’ve been finishing the edits of my novel and now that it’s out to a last round of beta-reading, I can turn my thoughts elsewhere.

A good friend and fellow writer (and crit partner) has lamented the difficulty in distinguishing voices in her current project (also nearing completion). She is attempting to juggle two POV characters, and has found that they tend to sound the same. That is, they sound like all of her characters’ voices, at least from her perspective. In my novel I juggle four POV’s myself, and I know that it can be a real challenge, which is why most writers tend not to do it (George R. R. Martin notwithstanding). Maybe you have to be a bit schizophrenic to be able to deal with having multiple voices in your head.  Shut up, I was going to get to that.  I said, shut up!

Sorry, what was I saying?  Oh yeah, multiple voices.  So anyway, although I’m nearly done, I started thinking about what makes my voices distinct.  I realized that vocal affectations can go a long way.  Little, repeated phrasings and idioms.  We all do this when we talk, and, for most writers, their own such affectations tend to appear in their writing.  The best writers are aware of this and can master and control them.  I don’t know if that’s the case for me, but I try to be conscious of it.  And I decided that finding a key example might be a helpful thing.  So I have developed a little exercise, a simple thing to do when you are trying to distinguish between your characters.

For each of your primary characters (it can work for secondary ones as well), select a single utterance that represents the character.  Not a catch phrase or grammar style, but a single interjection or such that the character would be likely to say in a variety of situations, possibly without even realizing it.  There might be more than one; that’s okay, and consider them all, but also see if you can land on the one.  The one that really sounds like your character.  Here’s how I did it for my four main characters:

Nick is super intelligent, but also very cautious and conservative:  “Hmm…”

Mirana is an action hero who is likely to hit first and ask questions later (if she bothers to ask questions):  “Oh.”

Tanya is a mute, traumatized young teen who is afraid of her own power:  *sigh*

Robin is an unihibited little girl who is emotionally tuned in to everyone and everything around her:  “Yay!”

And for people following my story, the Professor’s utterance would probably be:  *ahem*

Now, this was pretty easy for me because I’ve already spent a lot of time with these characters, but if your characters are still new to you you can probably still find something that you are comfortable with.  It might be forced a bit, in which case try again.  And you don’t actually need to insert the utterance into your text at very opportunity.  You have it in your head, and it helps you know what the character sounds like.  And when you know, your readers will hear it as well.

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Comments
  1. I love it! That’s so small and subtle but very clever. It’s one of those things readers may not consciously pick up on, but will still get the sense of different voices. And I think you picked perfectly for your characters, especially Robin and the Professor. 🙂

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