Tammy Lash's book is only available in paperback, so I've unfortunately not had a chance to read it, because I'm poor. It looks interesting, though.
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“Help! My characters all sound alike!”
Our home phone doesn’t ring much anymore—four out of the five of us have cell phones. Texting is now the chosen method of “keeping in touch” and our handsets are slowly becoming dusty, nostalgic pieces of the past. Conversation is individualized and no longer is the whole family involved in the mystery of the phone’s ring.
“Back in the day” when our phone did ring and someone other than myself actually got up to answer it, there was usually always confusion involved on the other end. The confusion belonged to grandma. Not only did all my kids look like me (sorry daddy), but apparently they also all sounded like me as well. My daughter would laugh at the weekly “you sound just like your mom!” speech. The boys, however, didn’t find any humor in their grandma’s giggled confession. Time, thankfully, remedied the situation for the boys, but before that happened the kids learned to announce who was speaking if grandma forgot to ask.
My family’s phone struggle isn’t all that different from the problem many of us wrangle with in writing. How do we give our characters their own distinct voice when they can’t be physically seen or heard? How do we keep their voices from sounding the same? We can help our readers differentiate our characters from one another by remembering GRANDMA and her need for information to keep her grandkids apart. Each letter in her name holds the key to help us as writers keep our own characters voices clear and recognizable.
Be giving! Follow the examples of grandma and shower your characters with all your love and creativity. “Spoil” them with plenty of traits. Push beyond the boundaries of eye and hair color and zero in on unique physical traits.
For example: Think about scars, birthmarks, or perhaps a handicap or an injury. I personally have a distinct feature, though it has to do with my eyes. It’s unique. One of my blue eyes has a large splotch of brown in it. It’s shrinking the older I get, but it’s there. I’ve always been proud of my almost-brown eye. It sets me apart from everyone else. I don’t know anyone else who has eyes like mine. Tubs, a character from White Wolf and the Ash Princess, has the tip of his thumb missing. The injury helped shape his nickname and the mystery of his real name kept his fellow characters—and readers—guessing what it was throughout most of the book.
Give your character a magnetic personality. Whether hero or villain, help your reader to “see” who they are through word or action.
These “gifts” will set your characters apart and they will become as real to your readers as they are to you.
Not everyone is a conversationalist. Remember who your character is while writing. Don’t make your shy character ramble on for pages if that’s not who they are. It’s not the quantity of lines of conversation you make for your character but the quality.
Ask yourself questions about your character (the physical and spiritual) and list them and your answers in a notebook. Dig deep. Physical features are important but it’s the characters insides that the reader will connect with. What do they fear? What/who do they love? Hate? What hobbies do they have? What does their past look like? What do they desire for their future?
Be thoughtful when it comes to naming your characters. Readers love it when they discover their hero’s name was chosen because it has meaning. It’s an effortless way to add another stroke of color to your character.
For example: In White Wolf and the Ash Princess, there are several American Indian characters. All of their names were chosen to showcase their unique personalities. The main Native American of the book, Mikonan, is Ojibwe and his name means “I find it among many other things”. His name was an opportunity to further display his loyalty and perseverance.
The description I’m speaking of is the “filler thoughts” in between dialogues that are just as important as the words the characters are speaking. None of us speak what’s truly on our minds. Much of it stays behind our tongues. Fill in the moments in between conversation with your characters true thoughts—the thoughts he/she can’t or won’t voice. Your readers will develop a deeper understanding of your character and this will tighten the bond between reader and character. I like to think of this as “diary writing”. Readers get to hear what isn’t voiced. It’s like whispered secrets from the author.
None of us speak without movement. Move your character during conversation but with movements exclusive to them. Does your character speak with his/ her hands? Or do they hide them by stuffing them in their pockets? Do they have nervous energy while speaking and come across as uncomfortable and fidgety? Or perhaps they’re confident in chat and do so lounged and comfortably stretched. Whichever personality type, visualize them in their speech and describe what you see so your reader can see them to.
Everyone has one, though most of us will say we don’t. My Michigan accent sounds funny to my southern niece (she has the accent, not me!). She finds our lazy pronunciations hysterical. We get in debates over the correct way to pronounce ‘roof’. She asks why we Michiganders call ‘milk’—‘melk’, and she marvels at our word ‘yoosta’. She says it has no business being a word—it’s the phrase ‘used to’! Giving a character an accent can be tricky. Give them too much distinctive speech and their dialogue will become more like code deciphering. Subtle differences is key.
For example: White Wolf’s Ojibwe characters don’t speak with contractions. Taking this speech short-cut away instantly makes their voice sound different.
Another way to play with speech is through punctuation and phrasing.
For example: “I don’t care.” Vs. “I. Don’t. Care.” The first we can imagine is spoken with a shoulder shrug of indifference. The second is more focused and precise. This person is obviously irritated. Through periods, dashes and word choice, have fun discovering through marks and words your characters unique voice and tone.
Once we know who our characters are, the dialogue will naturally come. Remember, grandma needs clear and concise communication to distinguish “who’s who”. Follow her guidelines and your characters voices won’t be confused with another again. They will have a sound of their own!
Written by Tammy Lash
Author of White Wolf and the Ash Princess