Advice, Characters, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Writing

Keeping the Voices Straight

I love to write dialogue. I’d guess that in 87% of my scenes, I write the dialogue first and fill in the narrative later. So, deciding what my characters say is rarely a challenge, but making sure their voices are distinct and stay true is.

character_speakWriting in both male and female voices is a challenge in itself. Then you have to consider the character’s education, life experience, and regional influences to develop a voice that sounds natural. And you have to repeat that for each of your characters. Ideally, even when your character is not identified by name, the reader shouldn’t have to read very far into a paragraph before realizing who’s speaking or narrating.

In The Brevity of Roses, a few of my characters, for whom English was a second language, didn’t use contractions when they spoke. Because I didn’t want my main character to sound too stilted, as often as possible, I challenged myself to form a natural-sounding sentence without using any words usually contracted in informal writing.  Still, after each draft, I made an editing pass specifically looking for contraction slip ups.

Also, in that novel, two characters were upper-educated poets and because I’d written a good bit of the book in their voices, by the time I got to a third major character who was a young, streetwise woman I found myself slipping back and writing words and phrasing, both in dialogue and narrative, that she wouldn’t have used naturally. I had to edit those out.

In one of my current works in progress, my biggest challenge is staying “in character” as I write the parts from my Jesse’s point of view. He was born into a poor mining family in the West Virginia mountains and left school when he was fifteen to hire on as farm laborer in Kentucky. I don’t want to write his voice in dialect as much as I want to give the flavor of his voice. That flavor is not my own and I catch myself slipping out of character often.

In addition to Jesse, I have several characters who speak with just a touch of country and a couple who are pure “city folks.” One of those is the main female character, Nicole, who happens to be an English teacher. So again, I’ve set myself up for several editing passes just to make sure I’ve kept the characters’ voices “natural.” I accept that challenge.

If you’re a writer, what challenges are you facing in your current work?


9 thoughts on “Keeping the Voices Straight”

  1. Dialgue can be tricky. I have a Canadian and an Englsih 12 year old girl in my books. I have to be very careful that they say things that sound natural to them, for their age and where they come from. Now that I am on the fourth book it is becoming easier. I also have to be careful that I don’t have them say something that only an adult would say. It helps me to hang around kids to hear how they say things. I felt you did a great job of dialoque in your books. Good luck with this next one.


  2. I had trouble with the contraction issue when starting my French nineteenth century novel, wanting to sound old-fashioned, but so many French words use apostrophes that I ended up abandoning that rule and using them when I needed to be informal. (And Linda, I just discovered that somehow WordPress dropped your blog from the list of people I’m following. I haven’t been making the rounds all that often, anyway, with my small press taking up a lot of my creative time, but I’m glad to have reconnected! That has happened with other blogs in the past, and it’s frustrating but I’m always glad when I realize it and re-follow.)


    1. Oh yes, Laura, I can see that’s one of the difficulties in writing historical fiction. I remember reading a blog post from a writer of Regency romances saying she made the same decision, though apparently had received some criticism for it. I’m glad to hear it worked well for you.

      I’m honored you re-subscribed. 🙂 I hadn’t realized WordPress drops subscribers because I subscribe and read blog posts through my email app.

      And congrats on your new small press venture. I wish you the best. 🙂


      1. Interesting about the Regency author; I’m hoping mine works because the historical part is fanciful, so it’s more a literary novel than an actual historical one. I use the WordPress reader and sometimes I realize months later that someone dropped off my list! It’s always nice to reconnect, though.


  3. I sure know how to make my writing life difficult. As if I didn’t have enough trouble trying to keep the voices of my characters distinct, I now added Italians in Tuscany who speak English to my WIP! Ha. ha. Dialogue is fun but a real challenge!


  4. I also enjoy writing dialogue, knowing that when people speak many of them have a unique way of saying things.Not only that, a lot of people speak in partial sentences I’ve noticed. No doubt I do too. 😉 My big challenge right now is finding the beginning of my story. I think I’ve finally accomplished that. Turns out it was much farther into the story that I originally thought. I was kind of considering ditching that particular project because I just couldn’t get into it. I liked the overall story, but the beginning was really dragging me down. I’m back to loving it again, and excited to work on it. That’s the way it should be. Finding the right beginning to the story is so important. It’s where you grab your reader and pull them in.


    1. You’re right, Laura, beginning the story in the right place is very important. One of my current projects has four different beginnings, but who knows if I’ll use any of them. 😕 I’m happy to hear you’ve fallen back in love with your story. 🙂


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