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At this point, you should have a basic concept of your main characters.
If you haven’t seen the Character Introduction section of the Roadmap, we highly recommend checking it out to see the guidance on creating and defining the beating heart of your main characters.
In this section we’re going to take those cores and add layers and nuances to ensure each character is completely unique and complex.
To do that, we’re going to use three different character development techniques:
Let’s look at each of these aspects in turn.
1. Character Voice
‘Voice’ is a term used a lot in the writing industry, but it can be hard to pin down, and can different things to different people.
One author suggested a helpful way to think about it is to split it into three different aspects: Author’s Voice, the Voice of the Novel, and Characters’ Voices.
Author’s voice, as you might imagine, is the voice of the author. Each author will have their own unique style of writing, which will come across through all of their books. Some authors have a very light, humorous tone, while others will include lots of detailed immersive descriptions, and others will create a deep sense of atmosphere and description.
Finding your voice as an author is something that comes through time and experience, and is largely based on your own personality. At the end of the day, your Author Voice is your voice, and embracing that is the way to find it.
The Voice of the Novel
The Voice of the Novel will vary from book to book, even with the same author - though in a series of books it shouldn’t change much. However, if you’re writing some books for children, and some for adults, then naturally those stories will have different tones.
But what we’re going to look closely at in this article, is developing Character Voice - which is a critical part of character development.
Each of your characters should have a unique way of expressing themselves, and despite the fact we’re using the word ‘Voice’ this is about far more than the words that come out of their mouths. It’s about the words they use, but also how they use them. How they hold themselves, and how their background affects their opinions and attitudes.
If you’ve developed your characters deeply enough, then each of them should sound unique, ideally to the point that the reader would know who was talking just from their dialogue, even if you didn't name the character.
Methods for analysing and developing character voice
There are a few methods you can use to analyse whether you’re doing this.
One is to go through the novel and highlight or pull out all of the text for a single character. As you go through it, check whether it feels consistent.
The second way is to pull out a conversation between several of the characters, and remove all the dialogue tags (the bits where it says who’s talking). Once you’ve done that, can you still tell who is saying what? If you can’t, you might need to work a little more on each character’s unique voice development.
Developing a character’s voice is central to developing the character themselves.
Below are some prompts that help you delve into many aspects that make each character unique by giving them a distinct voice, including their background, quirks and personality.
Let’s look at each of them in detail.
Looking closely at the vocabulary of your cast is key to their character development.
Some characters might have a very large vocabulary, using lots of complex words, while for others it will be small, and limited to more simple words. Some characters may even drop in words from another language, either because they have a background in it, or simply because they think it makes them sound clever.
You can also look at what words a character overuses. We all tend to have our favoured words and phrases, and identifying a few of these for each of the characters can really help develop their uniqueness and contrast from other characters.
When developing characters, you might consider which senses they favour - and this can be reflected in their vocabulary choices. Some people relate everything to sight, but others may be more tactile, or tuned in to sounds or smells.
Finally, during your initial character development you will probably have identified the character’s job, and maybe some of their hobbies. It can be very effective to try to weave this part of them into their vocabulary.
If they have a background in the military, they may use lots of words about ‘battle’ or ‘discipline’ or ‘order’. Or if they like gardening they may favour vocabulary such as ‘growth’ or ‘roots’.
Speech patterns / habits / quirks
Speech patterns and quirks are a great way to make your character’s voice unique.
However, it’s also one that you need to be a bit careful with, as clumsy use of this technique could lead to characters that feel like caricatures or cartoons.
A subtle way to lean a character into a speech pattern is to have some characters that always use long sentences, and others who always keep everything as short and to the point as possible. Another way is to have every other thing that comes out of a character’s mouth be a question.
As with all character development techniques, the ideal is to always link everything back to the character’s arc and their core. So, if they’re using long sentences, is it because they’re always being superpolite because they are worried about offending people? Or is it because they have an inflated sense of their own importance and like the sound of their own voice?
If they use short sentences, is it because they don’t see the point of beating around the bush and are impatient to get to the point, or is it because they’re crippled with shyness and it takes a gargantuan effort just to squeak out a few words?
However, of course you can go a lot further with patterns and mannerisms, and have very striking and unique quirks, such as a catchphrase they always say, or have them always shouting.
How far you go will depend on the kind of book you’re writing, and the kind of experience you want to give your readers. Making the characters’ speech patterns very extreme will make them more farcical. Also, having too many characters with intense speech quirks could get tiresome for your readers.
The educational level of a character will link in closely with their vocabulary, but may also affect their level of assertiveness and speech patterns (in fact, all of these character voice categories overlap and inform each other).
Thinking about where your character went to school; the facilities that were available to them; their attitude to school; and to what age they continued their education, will all richly inform their character development - and some of this will be reflected in how they speak.
More education may mean a more advanced vocabulary, but it could also mean pomposity or the desire to speak more slang to hide their class.
Less well-educated people may use simpler language, or they may start to overuse long words in certain company to compensate for feelings of inferiority.
Race / culture / regional influences
Regional influences can affect a character's vocabulary, word order, slang, accent, attitude and priorities.
As with speech patterns and quirks, using accents and regional dialects must be handled with care.
From a writer’s point of view, it should be a matter of professional pride to ensure any accents or dialects are accurate and insightful, rather than simply regurgitating cliched stereotypes.
Badly presented accents can make readers cringe, distract them, and can break the suspension of disbelief.
But also, from an ethical point of view, unhelpful stereotypes reinforce prejudices and create discrimination and suffering. Insulting stereotypes have been portrayed for too long in stories, and the tolerance for them is rightfully getting lower.
So, if you’re writing outside of your native dialect, then this may mean doing a great deal of research and consulting with native speakers for accuracy and sensitivity.
If you’re writing a dialect you know well, and personally, and have deeply researched, then they can add wonderful colour, nuance and positive representation to your work.
But if you’re not sure if you’ll be able to develop character voices in dialects that are accurate and respectful, then it’s probably wisest to avoid them.
Slang is an effective part of developing a character’s unique voice, and the particular slang they use can reflect their background, education, attitude and career and hobbies.
It can also be used to express their attitude towards others. For example, someone might deliberately use a lot of slang to make those who aren’t familiar with it feel uncomfortable or inferior.
Or they may be completely oblivious that when they use it, everyone around them is baffled, indicating a more absent-minded type of personality.
Direct and to the point or oblique and rambling
Part of a character’s voice is their manner of communication - some people are effective communicators, others not so much.
As always, relate these habits to your character’s core personality and arc.
If someone is direct, and to the point, that could be because they are effective and concise. But it could be that they do it to such extremes that people around them find them blunt to the point of rudeness. Or perhaps they use few words because they are paralysed with social anxiety.
On the other side of the coin, a character who speaks at length could be doing so because they want to ensure everybody is well informed, with all the facts - or it could be simply that they love the sound of their own voice, and have no interest in listening to others.
Assertive or passive
You can get across how assertive or passive your main character is via their speech, as well as their actions.
They may speak forcefully, saying everything as if it’s a fact, rather than simply their opinion. Or maybe they are assertive without being overbearing - calmly confident, but still warm and able to listen.
Others will sound like every word out of their mouth is an apology, and any opinions they hold will have to be dragged from them. Yet others may watch everything but hold their tongue until they have something they deem worth saying, which shakes all the surrounding characters with its profoundness.
As well as the words they use, body language and gestures are a key part of character voice development.
Do they hold themselves tall and look people straight in the eye? Do they shrug and slouch, and have their eyes glued to ttheir phone, even when people are talking to them?
Do they gesticulate wildly, or stay perfectly still?
Proactive, taking charge or reactive and following
A key part of any character is how proactive they are. This is related to how assertive or passive they are, but is subtley different
For example, a character may be very proactive, but be a lone wolf, not telling anyone what they’re doing, or allowing anyone else to get involved.
And a bluster person who talks in an overbearing manner, may still shy away from taking any actual action or risks.
Consider how proactive your characters are - and how they relate to each other. Is there a good balance of characters who take action and others who follow and support? Or are their multiple ‘leaders’ who end up clashing and causing harmful conflicts?
How are different ways of being proactive expressed?
It’s also useful to investigate different ways characters can be followers - are they supportive and constructive, but not getting in the way? Or are they constantly dragging their feet and telling the main character they’re doing everything wrong?
How can these attitudes be demonstrated through what they say and their body language?
Sense of humour
Sense of humour is a great way to add uniqueness to a character. It’s also one of the hardest to make varied, as we tend towards the things that we find funny. Things that we don’t find funny, we assume aren't objectively funny at all, and people who do laugh at such things simply lack a decent sense of humour.
But of course different people (and therefore characters) find different things funny.
Here are a few examples of the different types of sense of humour your characters might have:
- Bonding in the moment
- Bitter sarcasm
- jokes at others’ expense
- Toilet humour
- Quirky cultural references
- Puns / wordplay
- ‘Dad’ jokes
Metaphor and idiom preferences
Carefully selecting metaphors and idioms to reflect a character’s personality and life experience can be a very fun and effective way to for developing a unique character voice.
Characters (especially ones with a background in the military) might relate everything to war metaphors, saying that getting their boss to listen to them is an ‘uphill battle’ or that their son just ‘dropped a bombshell’. Here are some more war based phrases for if you want to develop a character like this.
Or a hobbyist sailor might say they they give men with moustaches ‘a wide berth’ or that their best friend left them ‘high and dry’.
Many of these sorts of phrases are so embedded in our language that readers will not consciously notice these patterns, but subconsciously, it will make your character come across as more unique and consistent.
And it doesn’t have to relate to hobbies and careers. If they are a visual person, everything will be related to sight, for example: ‘I see what you mean’, ‘That looks good,’ or ‘What a beauty’.
Or perhaps they are more affected by smells, and would say things like: ‘I smell a rat’ or ‘there’s no need to be sniffy with me’.
The Backstory section is an open section that allows you to put down anything you think is worth noting from your character’s past.
There are many different ways to approach this:
- You could write as a summarised overview, or create detailed in-the-moment descriptions of several of their most formative experiences.
- You could follow them from birth, through infancy, childhood, teenage years, young adult life, mid-life etc. Or you could just focus on a few key events.
- You can write the history as an omniscient narrator, or you may prefer to get into character and tell it from their point of view.
If you’re not sure which way to go, try some out and see what feels like a good fit. And of course you’re not obliged to follow the same method for all the characters. For some you may find yourself writing pages and pages detailing their entire life story, where for others you may write a single scene of a critical event.
Here are a few more prompts to help get your backstory flowing:
What is the character’s defining life event?
Of course we are shaped by multiple experiences, but it can be very powerful if you can come up with a single event that represents how your character came to have the attitude they have now.
For example, (spoiler alert!) Lotso in Toy Story 3 was a perfectly happy, loyal bear until his owner accidentally lost him and subsequently replaced him. This turned him into a bitter, manipulative bully.
In Toy Story 3 this event from his backstory is explicitly shown, but even if the defining event always remains in your knowledge only, it will still make your character feel more real to readers.
What was their childhood like?
Thinking about the influences on the character as a child can be really informative when it comes to understanding why they behave how they do as an adult. Was their childhood a safe place, filled with love and delight? Or was it scary and dark, where they had to fend for themselves? Did they have any friends? A best friend? An imaginary friend?
What person has influenced their life the most?
This could be in a positive or negative way. It could be someone who showed them kindness, who they would like to make proud, or emulate. Or it could be an oppressor. In this case, they vow never to be like that. Or perhaps the conditioning was so strong it has given this character a mean streak.
A character questionnaire is a great way to get our brains working in new directions.
Note that a questionnaire is not a good way to start building a character. The questions are too piecemeal, and your character needs to have a more coherent core before you get to this stage.
It also shouldn’t be treated like an exam, where every single question must be answered. A character questionnaire can be much more useful to provide little nudges of inspiration that we can follow down the rabbit hole of our imagination.
Some of these details may lead to interesting twists and layers to your plot.
We can use questions to give us ideas about how we can contrast our characters and create conflict between them.
Or they can help us discover details about their home or work life which will enrich our descriptions and make them feel more three-dimensional to our readers.
Even if the answers you discover have no direct impact on your plot, the information will help round out the character in your mind, and when you write from their perspective - this will come out, whether you notice it or not.
What's in your character's fridge?
Let’s go through an example:
A question about what’s in a character’s fridge could lead to the following ideas:
There’s a box of insulin canisters, a jar of pickles three years out of date, three bottles of mayonnaise (all open), a box of leftover chinese food, a salad bag and seven different types of cheeses.
By taking each of these elements, you could start to build up details from the character’s life:
Box of insulin canisters – it’s not for them, it’s for their cat, who they have such a soft spot for they allowed her to become obese, and now she has to have injections morning and night. So now we know the character has a cat and that first thing in the morning they have to inject the cat. Which gives us a better picture of what their apartment might be like (Cat toys? Cat litter? Smell of cats? Or is all the cat stuff meticulously cleared away?) and also a possible detail for a scene – injecting the cat, which has all kinds of potential for conflict and humour.
A jar of pickles three years out of date, three open bottles of mayonnaise and a box of leftover food: all of this suggests someone who’s slightly disorganised and not particularly into cooking.
However, the salad bag implies they attempt to make an effort every now and then – unless they also have a rabbit as a pet…
And the seven different types of cheese could be because they are actually a connoisseur of cheeses despite other disinterest in food – or maybe the cheeses are a gift from a mother, aunt or friend. In which case that begins to lead us down an alley of what that relative or friend might be like, and the impact they have on this character’s life.
So, you can see that from a simple question about what’s in a character’s fridge, we’re starting to get some hints of their daily routine, lifestyle and even friends and family.
Many of the questions in the character questionnaire are deliberately vague, they are meant to be open to a bit of interpretation.
This sort of work can be quite intensive, so if you notice you’re starting to struggle to come up with interesting answers, take a break and come back to it later.
Another advantage of spreading these out over a little time is to give you a chance to people-watch in between. With the questions fresh in your mind, observe all the people around you - family, friends, colleagues, strangers - watch them all, and see what inspiration you get to supply interesting answers to the questions.
Character Questionnaire Dos and Don’ts
Here are a few dos and don’ts to help you get the most out of this character questionnaire:
- Start by browsing quickly over all of the questions to get a sense of the sections
- Vary how you use the questionnaire depending on the character / the day / your mood
- Pick out the questions that you find work best for you, and use them to create your own personal streamlined questionnaire
- Completely ignore any sections you don't feel are relevant to your character
- Mix it up - one day you might decide to pick 10 questions completely at random. Another day you might decide to complete all the questions in a single section.
- Approach it as a brainstorming exercise
- Allow your mind to go down a rabbit hole, if one question inspires you to write an entire scene from that character's history, then fantastic!
- Understand that your in-depth knowledge of the character will bleed into your writing, even if the vast majority of this information is never written in your manuscript
- Try to answer all of the questions for any given character
- Try to do too many of them in one sitting
- Feel you have to go through the questions in order
- Try to follow a rigid pattern over and over
- Use it to start building a character - you should already have the broad brushstrokes of your character, including what drives them and their biggest flaw
- Use all of the information in your novel - most of the answers should be internalised, not spelled out
In the Novel Factory go to the Character section. Open up each major character and complete as much of the Voice, Backstory and Questionnaire tabs as you feel is right for you.