Of Character Voices And Slang

In essence, a character "voice" is the style and manner in which a character speaks. There are four primary components to a character's voice, which are:

There are many reasons and ways to shake up and variate your character's voices. Read on to learn more!

Table of Contents

Why you should care about giving your characters distinct voices.

Making distinct character voices is important for many reasons - the first being believability and realism. In the real world, people speak differently for many reasons, including culture, social class, level of education, age, and personal preference. A princess from a bustling metropolitan capital would speak differently from a peasant hailing from a remote rural town - and this difference could range from minor (a few changes in terminology and grammar) to major (the princess and the peasant practically speak two different languages).

(In CSI, the guest characters have a habit of speaking in the same voice, and it's odd hearing dozens of people who supposedly come from all different walks of life speaking almost exactly the same as each other.)

The second reason is that it makes each character more distinct. If you're telling your story solely through text, distinct voices can help your readers identify who is talking long before you get to the so-and-so said marker.

The third reason is that it if you're writing a character set in the real world, it can give a sense of the character's origins without ever resorting to writing out an accent. Written-out accents are often very obnoxious to read, and potentially offensive - but if you use the right voice, odds are good that your readers will hear an appropriate accent in their heads without you ever spelling it out to them. Agatha Christie's books demonstrate this very well - the various voices she gives her characters immediately bring their probable accents to mind.

How character voice and slang can potentially convey information about a character.

When I hear someone use the word flat rather than apartment. I immediately know that person is probably British. The same is indicated by the use of the word queer or funny to mean something out of the ordinary - Americans are more likely to use strange or weird. Likewise, one roleplayer's character once said something to the effect of "well, that's not a very nice thing, is it?" The inclusion of the idiom not a very nice thing and is it at the end of the sentence told me that the roleplayer was probably British. Likewise, someone who says I'm over the moon! is probably British, whereas an American would more likely say something like I'm so excited! (Or something similar.)

Whenever someone uses the word anyways, I know I'm probably dealing with someone who is a teen or young adult. (Older people tend to use anyway.) Oh for crying out loud is an expression of frustration or disbelief I occasionally hear from people in their fifties and up, but almost never among younger people - so, use of this expression could indicate a character who was older. Conversely, expressions such as what is this I don't even and I can't are favored by younger types. Older folks probably won't talk about their feels, whereas the term has gone viral among high school and college age people.

If I see someone using "cutesy talk" in conversation (eg, terms like dah, dis, meh, and otay in place of the, this, me, and okay), I know I'm probably dealing with a girl in her early to mid teens. Similarly, phrases peppered with Japanese terms like kawaii, nande and ohaiyo (terms that can be easily picked up from watching subbed anime) tell me that I'm talking to a young anime fan, most probably female. (Males tend not to use random Japanese so much for whatever reason, at least in the English-speaking world.)

If I watch a movie and see a scientist character use the word energy in the colloquial, rather than scientific sense (eg, "it's a wall made out of energy!") or use theory in the colloquial sense rather than hypothesis, I know I'm probably looking at the work of someone who doesn't have any kind of background to speak of in science.

People who belong to certain groups or adhere to certain ideologies are more likely to use its idioms, jargon, and buzzwords. For example, New Age types may sign off with love and light when writing messages to each each other, and they may refer to things and activities they believe to be harmful to one's spiritual development as low vibrational (in line with the belief that the better condition your soul is in, the higher its vibrational frequency will be).

People who feel particularly distrustful and/or contemptuous toward members of outgroups are also more likely to use derogatory terms for these people - eg, conspiracy theorists often derogatorily refer to non-conspiracy theorists as sheeple.

Speaking in a laconic manner (ie, expressing oneself in the shortest possible manner) can indicate someone who values efficiency, or simply has so much to focus on that lengthy words and sentences take too much time and effort to use.

For an SF example, having the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Loki and Thor speak in a slightly (though not extremely) antiquated and somewhat formal style (notice that they never use casual language like yeah, okay, or anyways) makes them sound regal, other-timely, and other-worldly.

Of course, nothing's 100% certain. Younger people can pick up older expressions from parents, grandparents, and old movies. Part of the reason older people often don't pick up on newer slang is because they tend to associate with people in their own age group, so if you have someone who associates with younger people on a regular basis, xe might pick up on the slang of the younger folks. (Beware, though - older people do often see new slang as ridiculous-sounding, while younger people might see an older person using new slang as trying too hard to ingratiate themselves.) Fans of British entertainment might pick up on British words and idioms, for example. And aliens who spend a lot of time on Earth might pick up the current speech patterns. The real question is to ask yourself what's appropriate for your character given xir life history and preferences.

Places & ways to study and learn new voices.

Stop and listen to the people around you and how they speak, or even read how different people write on the Internet. Note how they use different words and expressions, and how they order their words differently. Pay attention to how people on TV or in books and film talk, and take notes. What kind of people are most likely to talk how? What are some interesting or unique manners of speaking that could make for a memorable character?

Watching movies and reading everything from books to song lyrics from various time periods and places can give you a pretty good idea of how people spoke at the time. For example, if you want to write a 1940's "voice," watch films from the 1940's and pay attention to how the people talk. You'll get a pretty accurate image of how the type of people who wrote those works spoke, at the very least. (Also, while you can occasionally find lists of period or regional slang, these lists don't really reflect how the terms were used, who used them, and how often - which is why it's better to actually look into the works from the time.)

Likewise, if you wanted to write an Evangelical pastor with a voice like you'd see in a real Evangelical pastor, you might go and look up videos of Evangelical pastors, or find works written by them. If you wanted to write a scientist who sounded like a real scientist, you'd want to go and learn yourself some scientific lingo through works created by actual scientists.

One thing to note is that stories written about teenagers by adults often portray teenagers' slang inaccurately - it may be several years out of date (since most adults aren't exactly on the ball with the newest slang terms), or may actually reflect slang the author used when a teenager xirself, or it may even be slang that the author made up that's supposed to sound like actual potential slang, but actually isn't.

In any case (as always), doing your own research and observation is your best bet.

These might also interest you:

Tips 'n Stuff To Make Better Science Fiction/Fantasy Slang & Swear Words
Character Creation & Development Theory (Or, How To Make Characters 101!)

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