This is an article I originally posted last year on the now-inactive Stonehenge Writers blog.
A good friend and fellow writer (and crit partner) has lamented the difficulty in distinguishing voices in her current project. She is attempting to juggle two POV characters, and has found that they tend to sound the same. That is, they sound like all of her characters’ voices, at least from her perspective. In my novel I juggle four POV’s myself, and I know that it can be a real challenge, which is why most writers tend not to do it (George R. R. Martin notwithstanding). Maybe you have to be a bit schizophrenic to be able to deal with having multiple voices in your head. Shut up, I was going to get to that. I said, shut up!
Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yeah, multiple voices. So anyway, although I’m nearly done, I started thinking about what makes my voices distinct. I realized that vocal affectations can go a long way. Little repeated phrasings and idioms. We all do this when we talk, and, for most writers, their own such affectations tend to appear in their writing. The best writers are aware of this and can master and control them. I don’t know if that’s the case for me, but I try to be conscious of it. And I decided that finding a key example might be a helpful thing. So I have developed a little exercise, a simple thing to do when you are trying to distinguish between your characters.
For each of your primary characters (it can work for secondary ones as well), select a single utterance that represents the character. Not a catch phrase or grammar style, but a single interjection or such that the character would be likely to say in a variety of situations, possibly without even realizing it. There might be more than one; that’s okay, and consider them all, but also see if you can land on the one. The one that really sounds like your character. Here’s how I did it for my four main characters:
Nick is super intelligent, but also very cautious and conservative: “Hmm…”
Mirana is a bad-ass action girl who is likely to hit first and ask questions later (if she bothers to ask questions): “Oh!”
Tanya is a mute, traumatized young teen who is afraid of her own power: *sigh*
Robin is an unihibited little girl who is emotionally tuned in to everyone and everything around her: “Yay!”
And for people following my story, the Professor’s utterance would probably be: *ahem*
Now, this was pretty easy for me because I’ve already spent a lot of time with these characters, and it’s only a sampling. I intentionally also gave Nick an actual affectation, where he tends to say, “Okay,” a lot, but that’s not really a reflection of his deeper character. And I could just as easily have made Robin’s word “Wow!” rather than “Yay!” but you get the idea.
If your characters are still new to you, you can probably still find something that you are comfortable with. It might be forced a bit, in which case try again. And you don’t actually need to insert the utterance into your text at every opportunity. You have it in your head, and it helps you know what the character sounds like. And when you know, your readers will hear it as well.