How to make each character you write sound different

Jane Eyre

One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.

Easier said than done, right?

Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.

Jane SteeleYou could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:

  • The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
  • The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
  • Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
  • Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.

This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.

Guest blog: Marta Acosta on the close calls of writing

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Marta Acosta, the author of the upcoming book The She-Hulk Diaries, releasing in June. We recently talked about the big misunderstanding and public relations nightmare that erupted in response to her book and another, Rogue Touch, in Marvel’s new line of superheroine fiction, falsely dubbed “romance novels.” Here’s what she had to say about writing and her career — in a sassy satirical piece. Take it away, Marta!

Marta AcostaLike most people, I love being labeled because it saves me the time and trouble of defining myself and explaining really boorrring stuff like, oh, that my name isn’t Maria and that I’m not really exotic since I’m from Oakland, or that I don’t write magical realism or romance. Basically, I don’t like to do anything that requires actual effort, thus the writing career. Which is not to say that I don’t make terrible missteps. For example, my first book, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, was written as a spoof of genre conventions with vampires as a metaphor for being “other” in society. I know — what was I thinking? So when people introduce me with something helpful like, “Our exotic friend Maria writes magical realism slash vampire romance with a hot tamale heroine!” I just smile with relief and say, “¡Si!”

I was pretty pleased to have this routine down pat when I made another terrible misstep. I wrote a modern gothic, Dark Companion, as an homage to Jane Eyre with a theme of social disparities and exploitation. The book’s tone is set by Paulette Jiles’s classic feminist “Paper Matches” as the epigraph. It almost makes me question the wisdom of starting each day with a dozen Sudafed and a tumbler of Tanqueray because my appalling pretentiousness is in direct inverse relation to my, uhm, cheerfulness. Luckily, readers quickly assumed that I’d merely written a really bad teen romance. Whew, that was a close call!

The She-Hulk DiariesLike most messy thinkers … er, I mean writers, I was looking for another way to keep from getting a real job … I mean, another fantastic writing project. When I got the She-Hulk gig, I did that whole failing-to-learn-from-history thing and wrote a lively comedy about Jennifer Walters, an accomplished attorney, who gets a new job at a powerful law firm while trying to have time for friends and activities and also handling her She-Hulk responsibilities. She’d like to have a healthy relationship with a considerate man and a professional wardrobe that isn’t destroyed every time she hulks out.

I felt pretty comfortable writing this story since I’ve been a lifelong fan of speculative stories. Was I a geek in high school? I think it’s like the ’60s: if you remember them, you weren’t there. I.e., as a teenager, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with spending all my free time with my best friend reading science fiction novels and discussing the possibility of alien life, interplanetary travel, and Asimov’s laws of robotics. We went to science fiction conventions and were the only girls there. We thought physics class was fun.

And I wore glasses. The realization that I’d actually written a funny geeky novel struck me too damn late, and I was in a desperate state, upping my Sudafed/gin intake and despairing about my days of hanging out at home … I mean, my writing career. I was rescued by headlines like the Hollywood Reporter’s “Marvel Comics Goes ‘Fifty Shades’ With New Line of Romance Novels.” I wanted to send the journalist a gift of those delicious brandy chocolates, but I was terrified he’d ask questions I couldn’t answer with a simple and enthusiastic “¡Si!”

My fretting was unnecessary, however, because no one bothered to find out that I’ve written tedious diatribes about gender, race/ethnicity, and class throughout my career. I think I’m safe, so long as actual romance writers and fans don’t explain that most romance readers and writers are fierce feminists.

I’m already working on my next book, which is inspired by the “diaries” part of my title. It’s a tribute to “Diary of a Mad Housewife” with robots and machinery as a metaphor for the rote and inhumane effect of sexism on society. I’m sure that Diary of a Mad Fembot will cement my place in the robot/diary fiction canon, which is all I’ve ever really wanted.

Click here to read my interview with Marta.

Wrap up with Austin’s Persuasion, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or Bronte’s Jane Eyre

A Tale of Two Cities scarf

Etsy user “storiarts” wants to help you let others know about your fabulous taste in books by wrapping up with one.

Customers can choose from Jane Austin’s Persuasion, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the text decorating these chic scarves, priced at $39.99 each.

The seller typically accepts custom orders every few weeks for $54.99 a pop. Check the official listing for updates. The scarves take 2-3 weeks to make.

These are perfect for crisp, fall days and would make excellent gifts for the holidays, too. What do you think?