Don’t have a reader? Mark the section and turn on your computer’s text-to-speech function. (Both PC users and Mac users can do this.) Now listen and see if you can clearly identify who is speaking based on the character’s voice, ignoring the content.
You want to be successful in providing distinct voices for your characters, first and foremost, for clarity’s sake. You never want to have readers wondering, “Wait. Who’s talking?” And, whenever there is a long passage of dialogue or the beginning of a new scene, your story is vulnerable to this problem.
Pulp stories often used to lean on accents and catch phrases to distinguish characters, and, rather than risk confusion, you can do some of that, especially with lesser characters. But use a light touch. Highly structured stories rely on types. Young adult fiction often has a cast of jocks, ice princesses, nerds, freaks, and such, and these can help readers stay oriented, too. But, at times, it seems as if the characters from one story could be shifted into another without anyone noticing. If your characters have wildly different backgrounds and perspectives, distinguishing them might be trivial. The main characters of the original Star Wars are very different. The same is true for Chinatown.
But many stories can’t depend on unnatural (pulp) and natural (varied backgrounds) distinctions. Think of the many students in Dead Poets Society, who are of the same class and culture. In these cases, writers need to work harder to create clear variation in voice.
But even when characters are easily distinguished, it’s worth searching for ways to make them unique. Why? Because every time your character speaks — whether in dialogue or first-person narration — you have an opportunity to deepen the characterization and more fully realize the emotion and engagement of your reader. These also orchestrate the rhythms and sounds of your prose, adding to its beauty and power.
Sometimes, voices emerge naturally, from the first pages. If cliches are avoided, that’s organic and a great way to create distinct voices. Don’t challenge gifts from your muse. Alternatively, I’ve written before about interviewing your characters. The key is listening to the answers and going at it long enough for the personalities to emerge. Here are some specific things to try:
- Ask questions you want to hear the answers to. Make these open-ended (never answerable by yes or no). Include “Tell me about…”
- When you ask a question, jot down the complete first answer. Then wait. See if your character fills the silence with more. (This is a great technique in real life, and I was amazed to find it works with invented characters, too.)
- Ask your character what he or she might ask the adversary (which can be the love interest in a romance). Then ask the character to imagine he or she IS the adversary and to answer the questions from that perspective. This provides new information AND makes the character assume a persona further away from the writer. Creating that distance can be powerful.
- Ask the character how he or she would do something. This can be related to a task in the story, but it doesn’t have to be. Asking about a process like picking out a gift for a loved one or talking a cop out of a speeding ticket or helping someone find lost keys creates a reason to talk that is within a context that inspires clear answers. In addition, these more or less generic questions can be asked of several different characters, and you can see have the replies vary (or don’t).
I admit that this is a radical approach. It may mean you can’t do this work with other people in they house without creating a disturbance. But I haven’t had a case yet where I didn’t get valuable information that led me to distinct voices.