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When you write dialogue, when you write dramatic monologues, when you write in first person, your character must have his own voice.

Voice is in part the distinct vocabulary, grammatical tendencies and spoken patterns which are unique to your character. A linguist would call this his idiolect.

Voice’s other part is made up of the interests and obsessions of your character: what sort of things they notice about the world, how they interpret them in relation to their previous experiences, and what emotional colouring they give events. We might call this perspective.



Firstly, a story: I am English, middle class, and I studied at Oxford. When I worked in a supermarket cafe in inner-city Cardiff (Wales) I’d get customers who would say, after half a minute’s banter about their breakfast at the till, “hang on, you’re too clever to be working here!” They didn’t say this because I had told them my life story, or discussed with them the philosophy of Shelley’s Ode to Liberty, because I hadn’t. After this happened a few times I started asking “are you just saying that because I’m English?” “It’s not just that,” they’d reply, “you use long words too.” Their assumption was absolutely right of course; but it was made purely based on my idiolect.

Go to a café or sit on a bus. Eavesdrop. How do other people speak? If you were going to say the same thing they’re saying, would you choose those words in that order? What do you notice about the way other people say things that’s different from the way you say things? Why do you think these differences come about?

Things that influence a person’s grammar and vocabulary include:

Education – the more education a person has, the larger and more polysyllabic their vocabulary. It will also involve more abstract and technical terms.

Job – every job (or area of study) involves technical and specialist terms known as “jargon”. Because I teach GCSE English I need to use lit-lang, WJEC, controlled assessment, and mark scheme regularly. When I worked in a cafe it was health and safety, chiller, point of sale, and PPE. For my English degree Restoration, Modernism, ibid and epic were words I could not afford to misunderstand.

Social class – Closely related to education and job, but not identical. A character may defiantly display their class, or fight against it. A significant influence during childhood, even if he moves in different spheres later on he may not be able to shake off his origins. The lower a character’s class, the more non-standard grammar he’ll use, and the more dialect terms he is likely to know.

A working class character may always use “was” for “were” or vice versa. He might say “by here” instead of “over here”, “happen” for “perhaps”, “that’ll learn him” for “that’ll teach him”. You can be clever with this: if a character wants to hide his low origins, he might have obliterated all signs bar one phrase which gives him away; if a middle class character wants to fit in, he might adopt enough slang, but be unable to use grammar he knows is “wrong”.

Age – Language evolves over time. Words fall in and out of fashion and slang terms come and go. Non-standard English becomes less acceptable the older you get: as a child it is inevitable; as a teenager it’s rebellious; as an adult it’s inappropriate. By old age many (though not all) people decide they are too old to learn new tricks.

Slang – Besides dialect, each group of friends, or peers, or family members, or people who just hang together too much, will develop its own specialist vocabulary. Internet slang includes “lol”, “troll” and “tweet”. Oxford slang includes “bop” (party), “collections” (exams), and “scout” (cleaner). Just like real people, a character may use different slang sets when talking to different listeners. Sometimes they’ll do this because they know that their companion will understand; but sometimes they do it because they want is to emphasise how different they and their listener are.



Characters’ perspectives will vary for many of the same reasons that affect their idiolect.


·         An educated person might respond to an emotive news story in a tabloid critically, and renounce it over the breakfast table. A less well educated person might be outraged and let their family know in no uncertain terms that these days everyone wants something for nothing.

·         A carpenter will look at a forest in a very different way from a historian. The former may identify the wood and its quality, and know that it’d be fine for fences but no good for a relief work on a wardrobe. The historian might muse upon the age of the forest, which earl owned it in the thirteenth century, what the earl used it for, and how he went about keeping his peasants downtrodden.

·         A working class person might see a restaurant as nicely done up and the food fancy but a bit weird. A middle class person might, in the same restaurant, think the wallpaper was tasteless and the mussels overcooked.

·         Older people tend to know and understand a lot more than younger people, but be less open to learning new things or adjusting their ideas. A 45 year old may show sympathy for a relative with dementia, patiently explaining, keeping them comfortable, tolerating mood swings. A thirteen year old might be impatient, might lose it every time the relative gets the wrong name, might say “I’ve already told you” instead of explaining, might shout and upset the relative more.


But these are all generalisations. The most important influences on a character’s perspective are the personality traits that make your him an individual.

Shy characters will say much less than very confident characters, and may choose their words with more care. Intelligent characters will have a different sense of humour from less intelligent characters. Insensitive characters will ask awkward questions or say hurtful things.

Characters might stutter, repeat themselves, always ask questions, never converse but only deliver monologues, laugh at their own jokes, pun cringe-makingly. They might compliment everyone they meet, or only ever talk about themselves, they might tell everyone at tedious length about their latest obsession, or divulge intimate secrets about their love life to virtual strangers, or moan incessantly, or moralise at every opportunity.

They might be deadpan or animated, they might describe everything in extensive sensory detail, they might communicate purely in grunts and one-word answers. They might use short, to-the-point sentences, or find themselves wandering off in such strange directions that they can’t remember where they started. They might be pompous or full of self-doubt. They might speak as if they know everything or hedge every sentence with “I think” or “in my opinion” or “but that’s just me”. I cannot possibly create an exhaustive list.


There are two ways to deal with voice. The first is to think about your character, get to know them, and then think about what sort of voice they would have. The second is to start with a strong voice, and follow it back to the source to see what sort of character you’re dealing with. Both work.

Crucially, as you’re writing, imagine every line aloud in your head. Do you believe your character would really say it that way? If not, keep looking for the right words.

A tutorial on voice. Feel free to suggest more books/poems which create a very strong voice, or resources (such as good regional slang dictionaries) which might be good resources. So far it's just off the top of my head.

A fairly comprehensive list of regional slang dictionaries
The British Library's archive recordings of regional accent and dialect in the UK

Browning, Robert (poet)
Burgess, Melvin - Bloodtide
Carter, Angela - Wise Children
Dickens, Charles - Great Expectations
Haddon, Mark - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Rosoff, Meg - How I Live Now
Sachar, Louis - Holes
Salinger, J.D. - Catcher in the Rye
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
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PoorEccentric Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2012  Student Writer
These are some great tips. Normally when playing with a character in my head I have no trouble determining how they would speak but I have more trouble when I'm just writing the story. This guide is definitively a life-saver.
SparrowSong Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I do want to point out one thing about "the more education a person has, the larger and more polysyllabic their vocabulary." This is true to some point, but it's often not noticeable. I know people with PhD.s who know more jargon, but their conversation isn't markedly different from people who only have a bachelor's. (I mention this because I'm really tired of seeing people denote geniuses in stories by giving them large vocabularies and then smirk because the psychology PhD. doesn't memorize the dictionary for fun.) One of my high school teachers used to say that in essays, impress him with big ideas, not big words, and I still use that measure today. The smartest people I know have ideas about things or can discuss ideas intelligently; they often do not demonstrate a vocabulary larger than mine (and when they do, it's often a social class thing - I'd never heard of 'charcuterie,' but my upper-middle/upper class roommate acted like it was an everyday word).

I don't know a lot of people who only have high school degrees, so I can't talk about their vocabularies.
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2011   Writer
You're right about that difference between PhD and Bachelors. I suppose I was thinking about the difference between people with a university education and without. The effect is cumulative with class, age and other individual factors as well, but I work with a lot of people who left school without any qualifications and I'm pretty sure that for the majority, their best guess for the meaning of "cumulative" would be "type of cloud?"
SparrowSong Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
High school is mandatory until you're 18 here - that may also be part of it. A few years of school can make all the difference. I just wanted to point out that unless two specialists are talking to each other, people usually don't use words like 'vug' - we usually keep it at a level which we perceive as 'normal.'
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2011   Writer
angelStained Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2011   Writer
This is clear, effective & rather useful. Thanks a lot.

Also, I thought I'd watched you a seriously time ago. Well.
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2011   Writer
so did I. so basically I'm puzzled.

zebrazebrazebra Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2011  Professional Writer
The sole thing I am choosing to take away from this is how jealous I am that you got to study at Oxford.

(And how great it is. But then that wouldn't be a sole thing, so I'm sticking to the jealousy.)
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2011   Writer
It was good fun! It also loves its alienating slang :(
Caedy Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
You have been featured in my journal here [link]
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2011   Writer
I will also thank you here ;)
Hello-Please Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2011
omg I feel lyk I shud b payin u tuition fees for dis.

No seriously, my creative writing lecturers weren't as informative (bar the fantasy guy as he was rad). You've got some lucky GCSE kids.

The only problem when creating an idiolect is being out of touch with your subject. Seeing as we have to draw from our own experience, and can't get our characters to write the dialogue for us, our ability to emulate is limited. There is nothing more disengaging, to me, than reading phony dialect or outdated, stereotypical colloqualisms. The class barrier is where this occurrs more frequently in my experience; language is deliberately adapted to alienate in that regard so it's hard to tap into.
CrumpetsHarvey Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2011   Writer
Yeah, getting the balance between realism and stereotype is a challenge. Like description in primary school, though, it's worth risking overkill at first, because pulling it back from too much to the right level is easier than inching it forward.

And as I was writing this, I was thinking smugly "Hah! I can use this material for tutorials, and charge hapless but well-meaning parents actual money! Snigger etc." Of course they are also paying for individual, tailored attention, directly responding their their child's educational needs *seriousface*.
Hello-Please Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2011
You got the skills to pay the bills. BT will be happy this month.
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