I think making characters “sound”, for lack of a better word, different when they speak is a lot harder in genre fiction than it is for other forms of fiction. If you’re writing a story in the real world in the modern day, the reader can more easily pick up on how a character sounds based on region, ethnicity, language background and so on.
When you’re writing genre fiction, all of that goes out the window. The reader, at first, has no clue about this world. The various nuances of speech in this world become unfamiliar.
So how do we accomplish making character sound different without beating a dead horse?
Don’t Worry About it too Much on the First Draft
When writing first drafts, it’s a pitfall to get caught up on details. Remember the first draft is the writer telling themselves the story first. Don’t get too bogged by down by details. Write the damn thing and work out the issues later.
Your characters’ backgrounds will shape how they talk. Status, level/type of education, language, occupation, how well traveled they are, etc.
Have a clear understanding of your character’s background. In there you will find their voice.
Your humble peasant isn’t going to have the same level of articulation as the princess. They’ll use different words, form sentences differently, have different accents.
Speech is not a reflection of intelligence. It’s a reflection of background.
The Reader in Mind
Your characters aren’t talking to the reader. They’re talking to other characters in the story.
Keep the reader in mind by thinking about what exactly you’re trying to show with the character’s speech. When you’re characters talk, what do you want the readers to learn, discern, or judge about your character.
The reader will get a different impression from an eloquent character than they would a less eloquent one. This is a subtle difference that won’t be overlooked and it has beautiful authenticity.
Speech Reflects Personality
If I have a character who is a bard or poet or one that wants to appear as “intelligent” as possible, I can write:
“Love is absurdly nuanced, Protagonist McGee. It’s a fleeting and troubled mistress, and we are all desperate to be caught in her snares.”
Whereas a more direct character can say:
“Love is great, but it also sucks.”
One is not greater than the other, it will just depend on who your characters are, and what they want to get across.
There are much more subtle difference. A character who is more detail oriented will go into details, but a “big picture” person will be focused more on the thing at large. A leader will be more direct, whereas a “follower” will ask more questions to make sure they’re on the same page.
People Talk Differently in Different Situations
This is beautifully subtle and one you can easily observe in the real world. For example, I have an accent, but I’ve also studied voice and speech. My accent comes out a lot more when speaking casually with family than it does when I’m presenting research.
Things like formality, word choice, speed, etc. of speech all change depending on the given situation. Use this to your advantage.
Quirks and Personal Tendencies
Some people like make lots of jokes. Others like to keep their feelings to themselves. Some people are good listeners, while others talk non-stop.
Maybe your character always tells stories about their past adventures at everyone opportunity. Maybe another never lets them finish their story because “they don’t have time”.
Use these quirks in your writing.
Play With Words
Isn’t that what writing is anyway?
No matter what language you’re writing in, there are lots of different words for the same thing. A lot of the times, the words represent a more specific version of that thing.
“Horse” is a good one. One person may look at a horse and say “That is a horse.” another may say “That is a mare.” Neither is wrong, but the level of specificity and different words used to describe different things tells the reader a lot about these characters.
“Box” could be anything from a shipping crate, a trunk, a case, and so on. A lot of words are interchangeable. So play around with the words your characters use, how do these reflect who they are?
People Talk About What they Know
This is a problem in high tension scenes. The characters get together and make a plan. Suddenly all the characters seem to have profound knowledge of the situation from the same perspective, almost like they’re part of a hive mind.
The problem is this hardly works in real life, unless all these people are working in the same in field and have equal knowledge and experience with everything being discussed. In a narrative, it sounds like the author is throwing in their own voice in order to make it clearer. It’s easy to differentiate speech when the stakes aren’t as high.
My significant other can look at the engine of a car and know what everything does and a lot of the times figure out the problem if there is one. To me, it looks like a mess of machine and wires. I can look at a garment and tell you what the material is, what stitches were used, and sometimes speak to the quality of it (a lot of times).
The same goes for characters. Your peasant character who has never been involved in politics isn’t going to have some profound knowledge on trade and economics. Your stern character who says only what they mean, isn’t going to easily be able to be charming enough to get out of a tense situation. Your soldier will talk about and look at battle one way while the bard who writes the songs of the battle will think of it in another context.
So don’t suddenly change how your characters talk when it’s important. If their background is useless in that situation, let it be useless. If they have something to offer, let that be as well.
People Pay Attention to Different Things
Different details, areas of expertise, or areas of interest. People pick up on and notice different things.
A perceptive character will be able to read body language and other subtleties in the way others talk and carry themselves. Other characters may not notice or care.
My SO pays a ton of attention to different specific details about cars. When I see a car (no matter what kind it is) I say “That’s a car.” and the most detailed I get is color and maybe how new it looks.
What would your character notice when they first walk into a room? The furniture? The style? The expense/cheapness of the room and furniture? The people in the room? The art on the walls?
This can clue you and the reader in on your character and what they notice.
Don’t focus too much on the first draft. Edit and refine later. Consider background and personalities of your character before writing their voice.
Write a scene between 2 characters who have completely different speech styles.
- Is one quiet, while one is loud?
- Does a character constantly try to “one-up” the other?
- What are they talking about?
- How is what they’re saying relevant to the scene?