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Why do my characters all speak the same way? (Guest Post by Gunwallace)

HippieVan at 12:00AM, April 15, 2016

Rather than write about something I'm good at I thought I write about something I'm struggling with, and my attempts to resolve it. Writing characters with distinct voices.

Comics are usually conversations between characters. Speech bubbles are the preferred way to tell comic stories, as opposed to large chunks of text in boxes. The trouble is it's too easy for all the characters to speak with one voice … which is usually your own.

When your hard-boiled detective character and your high society debutante suspect are talking it doesn't ring true if they have the same speech patterns, grammar, vocabulary and slang. The sultry torch singer and the streetwise punk shouldn't speak like some middle-aged git in New Zealand sitting at a computer, yet if I'm not very careful that's exactly what happens. All my characters default to my speech patterns. Female, male, young, old, alien … it's a struggle to give them a unique voice. And the more alike the characters are to each other the worse it gets. So what can you do?

Speaking lines out loud can help. I've even experimented with tape machines and computer speech to text programs in the past. But, I'm a poor actor, and my spoken characters default to bad accents and exaggerated quirks rather than believable traits. Also, when my family are about it results in laughter and distractions rather than writing.

The various experts and bloggers on the subject can get rather technical; not that that's necessarily a bad thing. I've read I should be thinking about my characters in terms of their vocabularies, education levels, regional backgrounds, race, gender, hobbies, confidence levels, age and other social differences. Writing all that out for each character could be a very useful exercise, but, for me at least, getting that straight for every single spoken line makes the process of writing very slow and tedious. If that's something that works for you I'm in awe. I'm just not that organised and detail orientated.

Listening to how people speak in real life makes sense, except I'm stuck in my house writing. I do get out and about, and I do like to eavesdrop, but I'm not sure how useful it would be to base characters on the people in my immediate neighbourhood. They all tend to be a fairly uniform social-economic demographic. Still, listening is fun.

Do you ‘hear’ your characters talk to you? Robert E. Howard supposedly said that Conan was a figure that stood behind him and told him his life's story, and all he had to do was type it out as it was told. As I fan of the Conan stories I can't help think that's a simplification, since they are not written in first person and have asides and plot points a witness-narrator would not know about. But I sort of understand the principle. A few characters have got into my head and bounced their words around the large empty spaces they have found within. But only a few. Howard never claimed all the other characters he wrote about were as real to him as Conan, yet he wrote about them anyway. You can't wait for every character to talk to you.

My current solution, based on advice culled from the internet, is to give my characters a set of common words and catchphrases. This seems to be considered the lowest in the hierarchy of literally methods for creating distinct character voices, but it is easier.

So, for my latest ensemble comic script I've created a short set of words for each character to default to, to which I'm always adding and subtracting. Here's a few of them …

Chas: Yeah, nah, what? never, always, you reckon? (overconfident)
Dave: Yup, nope, huh?, maybe, hmm, I don't know. (circumspect, but disbelieving)
Tommy: yes, no, gosh, really? mister, please. um … ? (weak, subservient)
Mrs Bartender: Oi! Stop that! Get out! What can I get ya? Never. Not going to happen. (strong, in control)
Pamela: honestly, dear me, oh my, well I never, morals, decency (secretly seductive)
Trixie: Daddy, wot? nah, yer, sod off, oooh, c'mon, lovely (agressive, but sweet)

I don't often remember to put these is as I'm fantically writing, which is often a steam, or a trickle, of consciousness. Sometimes I have no idea who is talking in a scene until after I've written it. So the draft suffers from everyone-sounds-like-me-itis; which is a terrible, but not terminal condition. However, when I'm editing I can change some of the noes to nahs, the yeses to yups, and the ums to hmms. This at least gives each character a fairly consistent way of speaking.

Does this work? I'm not sure. I'm probably not the best one to judge the results. At the very least, however, it keeps the idea of distinct voices in my head as I write and edit.

How do you deal with this problem? Do you have any tips or tricks that allow you to craft unique, believable voices for your comic book protagonists? How much does any of this matter?

Thank you so much to Gunwallace for writing today's newspost! If any of you want to help save my sanity during this oh-so-fun end of semester time by writing a guest newspost, please let me know!


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PaulEberhardt at 3:45PM, April 17, 2016

To make both versions sound halfway natural, speaking the lines out loud is an essential method for me. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that matter. And I'm crap at acting! It's especially important in Plattd├╝tsch, which is traditionally a spoken language and has a characteristic laid-back flow that is impossible to get right just by writing it down - it only really shows when read out loud. It proved very useful for English, too, for pretty much the same reasons. The drawback is that I sometimes had to explain to worrying friends of mine that, no, I didn't start talking to myself and it didn't indicate I've finally gone completely bonkers. Some of them then went on to congratulate me on my acting skills - which I haven't got! Apart from that it's a sound method, so to speak.

PaulEberhardt at 3:44PM, April 17, 2016

Great, interesting guest post! /// I think giving characters their unique voice is especially difficult in comics, because you often tend to have rather short snippets of dialogue, just so you can fit it all into the panels. It's perhaps less of a problem with main characters, but with some of the others you might wind up having very little to work with. /// On the whole I guess it's mostly down to instinct in the end. I don't think I could keep up a methodical approach for long in my chaotic working mode: usually I focus on drawing and make up the dialogue as I go along. Drawing is slow, so there's plenty of time. Afterwards I build the final versions out of a mess of scribbled notes in a mix of two languages - my comic hasn't got an original language, I just fill in the missing bits in each version. It's a bit like these vintage spaghetti westerns, where each actor spoke their part in their native language, the respective other parts being dubbed for the various releases.

Gunwallace at 4:09PM, April 16, 2016

Thanks to HippieVan for letting me write this guest post. Happy to see it stirred up some conversation. Some great points and ideas in these comments.

El Cid at 6:56PM, April 15, 2016

I probably don't put nearly as much time into crafting dialogue as I should. Sometimes I'll have the artwork for a page completed for days and then only plug in dialogue right before I post. My method is about as simple as it gets: I "hear" the characters' voices in my head, and write down what I hear them saying. Each character has their own voice and, in a weird sort of way, I have to "know" them in order to write them. The only times I write stuff out in advance is when there's a specific joke or important bit of information that I need to slip in somewhere, in which case the dialogue usually comes out sounding wooden and "off." But also, sometimes the characters say too much or go off topic and I need to come back in and editorialize a little bit. So I guess I sort of use the Robert E. Howard method.

usedbooks at 6:17PM, April 15, 2016

Regarding those rewrite method you mentioned -- One of my character sprinkles in terms of endearment when talking to any woman. I try to add some on my rewrite and make him more condescending. I have another character who requires sailor-language. So, changing the "filler words" to expletives for one character or softer words for another. Another character who uses as few words as possible, so I cut down dialogue or use contractions. I never wrote any of that out like you did, though. Pretty cool idea.

usedbooks at 6:09PM, April 15, 2016

Some of my characters' dialogue comes more naturally than others'. It is about getting into the character mindset. I try to channel my acting experiences from back in the day. It is surprisingly helpful to play make-believe, role-play, or act. In terms of realistic, character-fitting dialogue, I find it going one of two ways. Either inspiration hits and the off-the-cuff original script is the most perfect and natural OR it requires five rewrites, a mental breakdown, and consultation with one of my sounding board friends for the sixth rewrite. (I obsess over dialogue. I will not draw until I have my script fairly close to perfect.)

Bruno Harm at 2:50PM, April 15, 2016

Wow, I haven't thought about it! (In fact, I got nervous when you mentioned a "Hard boiled detective"). When I'm writing, I'm imagining the dialogue like a TV show. And while my characters sound very different in my head I haven't consciously changed any speech patterns or vernacular. Something to think about I guess.

Banes at 10:00AM, April 15, 2016

Excellent article! This is a big issue to deal with! I agree that figuring out every tiny detail of each character can be hard to keep up with during writing. Knowing the basics of where they're coming from might be better - are they emotionally more action taking, or more passive or nurturing types. Are they intellectually more logical and linear, or are they free associating, right-brained sorts. Figuring out their verbal habits seems like a really useful way to separate actual dialogue.

KimLuster at 9:51AM, April 15, 2016

I've tried to impart 'gangsta' talk, Hispanic lingo, Irish brogue, to various characters in the past, and I always cringe when I reread it!! Nothing ever feels legitimate! But... ya know... I just got through reading an article about how some groups didn't actually act/talk that stereotypical way UNTIL a movie that romanticizes or sensationalizes them a bit came out... Take the Mafia: many of them started talking more refined, dressed better, developed a strange honor after seeing the movie...! Instead of them influencing the movie, it was the other way around...! The Disco scene, cowboys, bikers... Lots of their trappings were actually gleaned from movies about them, and the movies were largely just made up! So... while I'm still hesitant, I'm less worried should I decide I want a character to talk like I think their 'group' would!

Ozoneocean at 8:00AM, April 15, 2016

I like that shorthand for the common phrases. Like Scarf says- knowing the characters helps, but it's always hard... But when you say that it's not really that good if they all sound the same I can't help but think of one of my favourite writers: Jack Vance (and Philip G Williamson to a much lessor extent): He deliberately gave all his characters no matter what race or class or ethnicity or even species the exact same voice and it worked beautifffuly! All his varied creatures speak with the exaggerated perfection of a 19th century Jane Austin character and it's just so charming and wonderful. Despite the dialogue you still see beyond it to a character anyway, it really works. But I cannot bring myself to write that way... I would love to, but that sort of stylisation takes a lot of confidence to use because its SO drastic and would have such an impact on your work.

Ironscarf at 4:14AM, April 15, 2016

Great guestpost. I find the better I get to know a character the more distinct their speek patterns become. Knowing their background, motivations, hopes, fears and what they're not saying all help me to hear their voices. Sometimes the voices take over, so I keep a list of who are the real people and who are the made up ones. But sometimes the made up people alter the list when I'm not around.

Froggtreecomics at 2:51AM, April 15, 2016

This is why I can't watch Quentin Tarantino movies.

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