When evaluating manuscripts, one of the most frequent mistakes I see is a lack of individuality in characters’ voices.
Martha, James, and Peter can’t all have the same speech tics, nor can they sound too similar to the narrating voice. Each character needs a unique personality because, without it, they turn out flat and unbelievable. And you want them to be believable—believe me. You need them to sound like actual people.
Think of your friends, for instance; how many of them talk exactly the same? What about your family? Even they don’t put the all same stresses on all the same words. But why is this? And how can we counter this tendency to blend our characters into one gigantic speaking mass? How can we be expected to write dialogue that sounds like anyone else besides ourselves at all? It’s all we know!
But it’s not. What makes each person you know unique? The experiences they’ve had, correct? It’s the places people come from and the emotions they’re feeling that form their voices.
How can we do this, though, if we’ve only had our own experiences and we only feel our own emotions? I’ll tell you. First, by realizing that we are a lot more involved in the emotions of others than we usually realize.
Empathy. It’s the ability we have to understand another’s feelings. No, you may not have ever had a child die in a car crash, but you’ve heard the stories; you’ve witnessed others’ pain in situations like this or in similar ones; and you’ve felt that pull in your heart for the families of victims or for the victims themselves. And you can imagine what they must be feeling. You can sometimes even understand it. You can connect with your characters’ situations empathetically and you can create honest dialogue from that perspective.
Another way to create a unique voice for each of your characters—despite how oh-so-limited you are in your own experiences and emotions—begins with realizing how oh-so-limited you are not. Up until today, you may have believed that you’ve been yourself your entire life. I’m here to tell you that this is not true.
In fact, you have been many different versions of yourself along the way to who you are today. You’ve had various beliefs, understandings, methods of living, and trains of thought over the years. And all you have to do now is learn to pull from those different selves. Not only can you understand those one-time feelings better than imagined ones, but you’ve actually felt them!
You have all the resources and all the foundation materials to produce a diverse spectrum of characters in your writing. Don’t limit yourself by making the dialogue one shade. And don’t force a manuscript evaluator to read eighty thousand words of formal, I-refuse-to-use-conjunctions dialogue—yes, I’ve suffered through this.
People are fallible! They talk with poor grammar, speak in fragments, and they definitely use conjunctions (unless, of course, you want to make one character be wholly against these types of speech impediments, and just one—that could potentially work). The point is, if your characters don’t talk this way, as well, then your readers will never relate to them.
Now your dialogue can’t sound exactly like normal speech; it should be a bit more dramatized, but that’s a subject for another day!
The most important advice I can give you now is to start with back story. Every character has to come from some place real—even if it never makes it into the story. And as an author, it’s your responsibility to understand their past and to translate that into every word they say.
Ama Braxton, blogger at http://quilltime.blogspot.com/, interns with Brandylane Publishers of Richmond, Virginia. Here, she evaluates manuscripts, writes press releases, interviews authors and more. As a student of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication and a lover of fictional creation, she continues work on the first book of her new series.