by Kathleen Gallagher
As an aspiring writer, you see a lot of advice on the need to “find your own voice.” But what about your characters’ voices? Creating unique personalities and speech patterns for your characters is an important skill that elevates your storytelling. No two characters in your story should react the same way to a shared event. This includes their physical reaction and, most importantly for you the writer, their verbal reaction. Ideally, you should be able to identify your characters from a single line of dialogue. So how do you ensure that your characters are distinctive and engaging? Glad you asked…
How well do you really know your characters? Sure, you’ve probably worked out the basics for your protagonists, such as their appearance and general demeanour. But where did they come from? What is their level of education, where did they grow up, what are their goals in life? Jot down a list of these basic facts. Make it as detailed as you like, but have fun with it, too. What type of music do they listen to? What do they eat for breakfast? All of these characteristics contribute to how your characters will react to the conflicts you will eventually set up for them in your story.
After you’ve settled on your character’s background, take them for a test drive! Pick a few everyday scenarios and decide how the character would react. How would your character threaten someone? How would they ask someone on a date? Write your character’s reaction but this time as a few lines of dialogue.
Don’t take your character for granted. Do some research so you can avoid anachronisms, clichés and stereotypes. For example, in my story “8 Seconds to Mayhem!” Edgar and Elizabeth track down a villain at a Texas rodeo. I wanted to play up the conflict between an arrogant, well-heeled Brit like Edgar and the more down-to-earth Texans. But I didn’t want to just drop in stock phrases like “howdy, partner!” So I researched Texan slang until I got a handle on the rhythm and then wrote a few jokes that the characters could use. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of writing the story and I learned a lot about stretching my boundaries.
Diversity your characters! For my story “Nightclubbing” in issue 1, I created the character of Ryan, Trey’s love interest. He’s the same age as Trey and Artie, but he doesn’t have the globe-trotting, spy agency heritage they do so he’s pretty green. But he’s eager to impress Trey, and miffed at Artie crashing their date. I used that as a strength for Ryan rather than a weakness. It’s because Ryan sees things differently that he’s able to pick up on a clue that the others miss, simply because they’re not paying enough attention.
Finally, always push yourself out of your comfort zone. Your characters should not just be an extension of your own personal beliefs or straw men. The bad guy should be sympathetic, and the good guy should have flaws. It’s what separates a good story from a great story.
Give these “vocal exercises” a try and see what happens. Once you’ve completed them your characters should feel much more three-dimensional and real in your mind. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll keep a better focus on what the characters are trying to achieve in your story. And of course the real fun begins when your characters begin interacting with each other.
But that’s a subject for another time!