Talking about Voice, part 5: Differences in character dialogue

Way back at the beginning of this series, when I asked people to weigh in on voice or tell me what the wished they knew, one question came up repeatedly.

How do you make characters sound different?

I saved that topic for near the end because the truth is, I wasn't sure how to answer the question. I racked my brains all week about it. I looked at books on dialogue. I went back and analyzed my own writing journey and how I do characters. And I came to a startling (and possibly erroneous) conclusion.

Problems with character dialogue isn't a voice issue. It's a character development issue.

Here's how I see it, and feel free to disagree with me. If you're aware of the three aspects of character voice that we discussing the last post, if you're using appropriate vocabulary and trying to reflect your character's personality and concerns, and you STILL end up with characters who sound the same, you are most likely having one of three problems.

1.) Cardboard characters:  This is the most common problem I have with dialogue. If the character doesn't sound distinct, that usually means I haven't developed them enough. In fact, in my just-for-fun project the main character doesn't have a great voice. When I started writing it, this is what I knew about her:

Jemma Summerwind
~ sixteen
~ foster kid
~ part Native American
~ doesn't know her parents
~ used to be in trouble
~ has secret wind powers

I thought that would be enough to give her a distinctive voice. But I was wrong. She sounded generic. And the parts that didn't sound generic sounded a lot like me. *grin* A draft and a half later, this is what her bio looks like: 

Jemma Summerwind
~ sixteen
~ foster kid
~ part Native American (probably Lakota Sioux, but I have to do more research before deciding.)
~ doesn't know her parents
~ used to be in trouble
~ born on a leap year
~ likes to dance
~ a germaphobe
~ hates getting dirt or sticky stuff on her hands
~ gets asthma attacks
~ hates being tied down  or feeling 'owned'.
~ has secret wind powers

I don't feel like it's perfect yet, but her voice--and my sense of who she is--is definitely getting stronger. I don't like long involved character sheets, but I do think it's important to know what my character loves, what she hates, what stresses her out and what she's most afraid of.

And it does help with dialogue, because after all, strong emotions are most likely what your characters are talking about.

2.) Duplicate characters: If you've developed your characters and two or more still sound exactly alike, you should probably fire some of them. For example, right now I'm re-reading One Door Away From Heaven by Dean Koontz.

The main characters include:

~ A nine-year old girl with a leg brace, a twisted hand and an acerbic wit.
~ Her mother, an addict who uses every drug under the sun and believes that hallucinogenics during pregnancy give the baby psychic powers.
~ A twenty-something woman fresh out of jail, a borderline alcoholic trying to turn her life around.
~ A dotty older lady who was once shot in the head and now confuses movies with real life.
~ Two ex-showgirls--twins--who drive around in a motor home looking for UFOs
~ A private detective/ex-cop from a family of meth dealers whose comatose sister was just murdered.
~ A bio-ethicist and secret serial killer who believes that the disabled, the elderly and the less intelligent should all be eliminated.
~ A young orphaned boy who is secretly an alien shapeshifter and can quite seem to get the hang of human socialization.

This is a big book with three separate, converging plotlines and quite a few main characters. But none of them overlap. Every person on this list is different from everyone else. Each fills their own niche and no one infringes on anyone else's narrative space.

Think about the book you're reading right now, or better yet, find a book similar to the one you're writing. Now list the characters, writing it out if you're so inclined. Notice how each one is different. Those are the differences that come across in character dialogue.

3.) Padded dialogue: This one was a huge problem for me for a long time. When writing, don't try to imitate the way people actually talk. The plain truth is that regular conversation between regular people is boring. Dialogue in fiction is a pared-down version of conversation. It's like putting social interaction on the Atkin's Diet.

If your characters are well developed and each occupies their own space, then the differences should come across in their conversation. This is because in good fiction, characters talk about what's important to them. There are no bland conversations about weather, meaningless pleasantries or vague generalities. (Or if there are, it should be on purpose, with a clear subtext involved.)

Characters don't blather on like we do. They cut to the point, and their dialogue always advances the story.

So those are my thoughts. I'll probably revisit this topic on Monday, but until then, what do you think? Is there  a connection between character development and dialogue?

You can find the rest of the voice series here: 
Talking about Voice, part 1: What is it?
Talking about Voice, part 2: Three authors, three books
Talking about Voice, part 3: One author, three books
Talking about Voice, part 4: Viewpoint voices
Talking about Voice, part 6: Helpful links


  1. I like how you wrote down your list about your main character. Perhaps I need to do that for my secondary characters and see if that helps.

    It's easier to fix the voice of your main character because you can show their internal thoughts. For secondary characters, you only have their dialogue and some actions to show this in. Having the characters be really different like you suggest might help them not sound so much alike. Thanks.

  2. You are totally on the right track. The more detailed you can get with your character sketches beforehand, the better. And each character must serve a distinct purpose. One truly helpful thing a writing teacher pointed out to me about dialog is that often characters talk over each other, not really responding to what the other person says, as much as continuing their own spew about whatever's on their own mind. So, so true.

  3. "It's like putting social interaction on the Atkin's diet". Ha ha! Loved that.

  4. I love the point you make about dialogue always advancing the story. But your other points are also excellent. The characters in a story, if well-developed, have their own goals and their own interests and viewpoints. They are going to bring those to any dialogue that matters to them, and if they dialogue doesn't matter to them, why are they on that page? Distinct dialogue comes from great character development and judicious choices in scene and novel architecture. Thanks for the great series of posts. I've really enjoyed them so far.


  5. Too true, too true. Great post. Thanks-- and plus, you reminded me of a post I'm thinking of doing on Tuesday, lol. So thanks for the memory jog :P

    I agree with everything you said-- it definitely makes sense. :D

  6. Wow, thanks for the example with your (former) cardboard character! There's nothing like a real-life example to see where you can take something.

    These are great ideas of pitfalls to watch out for. Thanks again!

  7. I just discovered your blog, and I am loving your posts on voice. Thank you for sharing! Insightful and so clear.

  8. Natalie- I really think it might help you to do that. In the Dean Koontz example, I misspoke when I classified all those people as main characters. Only a handful are viewpoint characters. But the rest are so unique they FEEL as important as the main characters.

    Catherine- I love that! It's a great point too. Characters do tend to be rather self-absorbed. :)

    Jennifer- Thanks! It made me giggle when I wrote it. *grin*

    Adventures in Children's Publishing- You're very welcome! :) I'm enjoying doing them and breaking it down in post form has really helped me pinpoint some of these problems in my own writing.

  9. Director- Haha. No charge for the memory jog. But now I want to read this post...

    Kiperoo- You're welcome. That one is a fun example because I'm still tweaking her. I've really enjoyed using real life examples in this series though. It's amazing to see them side by side.

    Amy- Welcome! I'm very happy to have you here. :)


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