Are Your Characters' Voices Distinctive?

Earlier this week I commented about the  Accent Tag vlogs that are all over youtube. They're fun to watch, but for writers, they're more than fun. They're a great example of why character voices need to be distinctive, and they're a potential tool to help us figure out how to make our characters sound unique.

Just so you know, this subject has been on my radar for quite a while. There was a time, in my face2face group, when I kept getting this comment from one of the guys: "Your characters all have your speech patterns, your vocabulary. They all sound like you, but they should sound like themselves." 

Frankly, I didn't quite know what to do about that. One critique buddy suggested that I use more Anglo-Saxon English for one character. This was a real high-end critique group, and I was too embarrassed to admit I had no clue what the difference was between Anglo-Saxon English and regular everyday English. Oh, I knew I could look the etymology up in the dictionary, but the idea of looking up every word I used seemed a little impractical.

Then I read Starting From Scratch by Rita Mae Brown. In this book, Ms. Brown not only explains the difference between Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English) and High English (aka Norman English which is rooted deep in the French/Latin languages), she gives a list of examples of which I borrowed a few to list below.
Anglo-Saxon                 Norman English
Starting from Scratchwoman                female
happiness            felicity
to give              to present
lonely               solitary
murder/killing       homicide
calf                 veal
sheep                mutton
swine                pork
friendship           amity 

Do you see what I see?

This isn't something you have to look up or memorize. You can feel the difference. You know without anyone having to explain it that the rich and cultured employ domestics. The rest of us hire housekeepers. Word choice as characterization. Remarkably effective.

This was a solid step in the right direction, but it still wasn't enough.

I started looking at dialects and speech patterns. And I wrote an urban fantasy that has a leprechaun. I had no trouble giving this character a unique voice because I've spent more than a decade socializing in my local Irish pub. Mind you, this isn't a place where they think having Guinness on tap makes them an Irish pub. This is a place where the proprietor's first language is Gaelic and a core group of regulars were born on the Emerald Isle. I can hear the lilt of their speech in my head. And if I can hear it in my head, I can write dialog that lends itself to the cadence that's uniquely Irish. And sure, wasn't I thinking that'll be enough? So long as the reader hasn't a tin ear, they'll be hearin' that wee, brilliant cadence that makes the Irish sound so sweet.  

American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and WritersExcept, of course, not every character I write has an Irish Brogue. So my next step was to look at other dialects. That's when I found American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers by Lewis Herman & Marguerite Shalett Herman. With this tool in hand, I experimented with writing an East Texas accent and Ozark accent in the same story, paying attention to who used what speech patterns, and I started developing an appreciation for the different impressions the choice one grammatic structure over another can make.

In the following videos, listen not just to how they pronounce words, but how they phrase things. Verb phrases are often key, as the one gentleman says "I got to realizing..." That, my friends, is character voice.

From a writer's standpoint, the fascinating thing about this video, made by actress Amy Walker, isn't just the different accents she's fluent with but the changes that surround the basic information. "Attitude" accompanies every one of these accents.

One word of caution. Slang, whether it's street slang or business jargon, can help make your character distinctive, but it has pitfalls you must be careful to avoid.

Awareness is 3/4 of the battle and I now have the tools to begin to grasp some of the things that contribute to my characters' distinctive voices, and I hope you've been able to add something to your arsenal, too. I love to hear what tricks of the trade you use to make your characters' voices distinctive.


  1. A totally briliant post. I have never seen this subject discussed in such helpful depth, with such helpful examples. I especially liked the point that accent comes with an attitude - one of the things I adore about English regional accents is the feel they give me for the person inside, what their disposition is, whether anxious, lugubrious, sensitive, gloomy, fascinated by others' misfortune, depressive, larky. I'm off to tweet while I can still contain myself.

  2. Absolutely brilliant post. As an American living in the UK writing characters from both countries, this is so helpful.


  3. Wonderful advice. I've got a Texan and an Aussie in my next release, and vocabulary and speech patterns are so important to their characters. So much better than trying to write phonetic dialects, which are immediate turnoffs. I've also found you can relay an accent by having another character "hear" it.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Brilliant! I echo what others have said about this being one of the most useful posts on the subject I have ever seen. going out now to order some of those books you mentioned. What great tools!

  5. Wow, what a wonderful post! I just discovered your blog through She Writes and I'm so glad I stumbled upon it when I did. I look forward to reading more, and to reading this post over again!

  6. So glad everyone seems to be finding this useful. I should mention that the Hermann's also have a book on foreign accents that's equally helpful.

  7. You make a good point about hearing the Irish accent. A lot of writing has to do with the ear. You have to hear it.

    I have an Aussie in my published book Windswept Shores, and used youtube so I could hear the accent.


  8. VERY helpful post. Thanks for sharing! :)

  9. Great post! You've done some interesting research on this! Thanks!

  10. Fantastic post! I grapple with making my characters distinctive verbally. The info you've provided is both enlightening and enjoyable!

    Too much dialect or slang from your characters is counter productive. Too little distinction and all the characters sound the same. It's a challenge all the way around. For me, it's one of the tougher challenges to overcome in my writing. Thanks again! I spied this post via SavvyAuthors. Thanks!

    Kelli Ramsey

  11. This is a great, really useful post - thank you.

    A book I've been working on recently is set in South Wales, and when writing the local characters, it's amazing how their accents shape the words they use, and the phrasing they employ.

    I think anything that deepens characterization is good, and accent or speech patterns have to be pretty high up on the list of showing not telling, too!

  12. Another very informative post, Suzie. It deserves to be sharedon Twitter

  13. I saw your link on She Writes. Thanks for the information, and for the link to Hugh Laurie's appearance on Ellen deGeneres's show. I have now completed marked off any inclination I ever had to write a story using any character that uses contemporary American slang. ;>