Sixth Commandment

Keep True to Thy Characters’ Voices

It has already been established in the discussion on POV that the “voice” of the narrator in any story should remain consistent and clearly recognizable. There is, of course, also the matter of the characters’ “voices” being appropriate during any dialogue.

One challenge is to provide adequate differentiation between characters in the way that they speak (or, indeed, the way that they perceive the events of a story in the case of multiple third-person limited POVs). A character speaks (and perceives) differently depending on their:

– Age (toddler, youth, adult)

– Level of education (none, elementary, secondary, college/university)

– Social status (authority, intellectual, laborer, dependent, slave, outcast)

– Conversational skills (speechless, small talker, etiquette wise, open collaborator, chatterbox)

– Vocation, occupation, or other habitual activity (service, mechanic, analyst, organizer, counselor)

– Personality idiosyncrasies (optimist/pessimist, homebody/thrill-seeker, visionary/cynic)

– Native language


An author can test how recognizable their characters’ dialogue is by describing three different characters from their story to someone (… who hasn’t read their manuscript), and then reading random dialogue out loud for them to see if they can guess who’s speaking. It’s not unlike learning to do impressions of a celebrity. Each of your characters should have a vocabulary, sentence structure, thought process, and emotional tone unique to them.

Once the primary and secondary characters are sufficiently differentiated for your purposes, the final challenge would be to arrive at a dialogue “voice” that truly contributes to the nature of the main character(s).  If your protagonist has a mode of speaking dialogue that helps define them as a person, the reader is more likely to feel like they are reading the words of a real person. If the reader feels that your character is real, you can sell the whole story.


Bottom Line for FQP Submissions:

If you submit a manuscript that reveals a nebulous character voice, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with the character voice defined, or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the character voice issues (typically from $50 – $200.)

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