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.

The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.