Workshop Wednesday: Whose Line Is It Anyway? Taking On The Challenge Of Making Characters Unique With Only Their Voices

Hey Reader, I’ve got an important question for you.

If you took dialogue from all of your characters, shuffled them up and laid them next to each other would a reader be able to tell who they are with no context?

Would you even be able to tell who they are with no context?

If you’re not one hundred percent confident, read on. Additionally, if you’ve ever been accused of flat, cookie-cutter characters that don’t stand out, you may also want to read on.

Now, I’m always a nut for trying to improve in writing and finding new helpful exercises, so one day I was trying to figure out another exercise to help with making characters unique.

Character Sketches were already done, so I started ruffling through old plans for worksheets that I wanted to use at some point when I really wanted to teach writing. And then I stared at one of the exercises.

A Voice Sketch. These are pretty much tiny snippets of writing something in a character’s voice, usually in first person. The content doesn’t matter much really as long as it stays true to the character you’re writing. But the thing is that usually in this exercise, your character is predetermined, which I didn’t want for the next exercise because I only have so many characters and the same people would get boring all the time.

So what I decided to do is beef up the difficulty a little bit. And here was the new challenge:

Create Brand-new Characters Solely From Their Natural Voice In A Voice Sketch.

And here are the restrictions:

  • The character can’t directly say what they do occupationally. Aka: “I’m a policeman.” But they can imply it. For example: “I really hate when a suspect does X/Y/Z.”
  • The characters can’t directly regurgitate plot events.¬†In case a new character you create seems like they’d be good for your story. The focus should be the character themselves, their personalities, not the happenings around them. If you catch yourself typing something along the lines of, “I did A/B/C and it helped save the world, then it’s breaking this rule.” The character can describe what their life is like after said event happened though, or have nostalgia about what things were like before story events. ūüėõ
  • The characters can’t directly describe their flaws and especially not their positive traits.¬†¬†People rarely admit to glaring faults, even if you have evidence. Because most people don’t believe that they are evil or bad. While on the other hand, it’s hard for people to be objective about their positive traits. Show them. If he’s selfish tell how he doesn’t think that he should get involved with the case because he doesn’t care about what other people want to do. If she’s a know-it-all, say how she knows she’s right, how she doesn’t need some else’s faulty “evidence”.
  • The character can’t describe their physical appearance.¬†No one ever goes around saying, “I’ve got green hair and blue eyes with gold flecks in them” in normal every day speech. (Thank God.)
  • The characters can’t directly talk about abnormal abilities that they have.¬†I repeat, the character is the focus.
  • The character can’t talk about items with special abilities.¬†However, they can talk about¬†the fond (or not so fond) memories they have with a favorite object.

You may be thinking, “whoa” that’s an awful lot of restrictions, but here’s the thing… The whole purpose of the exercise is to break away from the safety net of using external traits to make a character unique. If a character’s only claim to fame to your story is something that isn’t rooted in themselves, then you’re getting on a shaky foundation.

If you’d like, you can use this to rework an old character, but I highly recommend doing this from a blank slate.

Now here’s some things that I happened when I did this five times a day.

  • Upbringing and education became more important than temperament. It dictates everything that a character can say.¬†Additionally, while a character’s temperament is important, it’s not as important as you think.
  • Speech ticks, dialects, pet phrases feel more natural when they’re used in speech first and added to an appearance.¬†As opposed to if you’re trying to force a character who is already formed to have a speech tick.
  • As you do this, the appearance might form in your head.¬†This is good, but don’t let it run the show.
  • Rooting hobbies, traits, and other characteristics in recollections made them feel more genuine.¬†This is because histories and our unique experiences of things are what give that significance.
  • It is very easy to go on auto-pilot and not notice when you’re making characters that sound the same.¬†As Professor Moody from Harry Potter would say, “Constant Vigilance!”
  • Characters created this way tended to stick out more and felt more solid inside than the characters made via Character Sketch method. This is very likely due to the fact that the basic character sketch exercise I made was intended as a description exercise at first and a characterization exercise second. Sounds backwards, I know, but I really did make it at a time when my concern was description of people. Also in this kind of exercise you get close to a character’s inner thoughts as well.

I suppose that just goes to show why appearances are a weak foundation to base a character on, and also why you want to work from the inside out with a character, even if you choose not to try this.

Anyway, in case I don’t get a chance to say this, my macbook air charger finally kicked the bucket, so Fun Friday’s post may be delayed or cancelled for this week until I get my new one. Hopefully it comes before this comes out, but who knows.

Until next post…Keep Writing!

And remember…




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