Here are two simple techniques for giving characters distinctive voices, without being obvious or resorting to gimmicky.

  1. SIGHT VS SOUND VS TOUCH

When we talk, we tend to use words based on one sense (or none at all), usually visually or aural. For example:

Visual phrases
Do you see what I mean?
I get the picture.
Look at it this way…
Did you see the…?
Look here!
Let’s see what happens.
I want to show you….
I don’t see that.
Let me illustrate…
It looks like you….
You’re got the wrong impression.

Aural phrases
Do you hear me?
That sounds good.
Tell me about it…
Have you heard about…?
You’re not listening to me.
Let me say…
Listen!
I have something to say.
What I’m saying…
If I’m hearing you correctly…

Feel/touch oriented phrases
Does that make sense?
How do you feel about that?
Are you following me?
I feel that’s a bad idea.
Can I bring up…
Something feels wrong
You’re getting off track.
I don’t follow
To give an example
So you feel…
You don’t get it!

So, by having one character who uses visual phrasing and one who uses aural phrasing, you can give them distinctive speaking patters. See, simple!

Actually, it might feel a bit awkward at first if you’re strongly into one sense yourself but it’s worth persevering with, if only because it gets you paying attention to words you use. Also, don’t use it in situation where a particular sense is actually needed. If there’s a strange noise, no one is going to say “Can you see something weird?” No matter how visual they are. (Although that could make an interest character trait.)

2. FRENCH VS LATIN WORDS

If you know anything about the development of English, you’ll know that distinction doesn’t make a lot of sense. English borrows from a lot of languages. It’s a mess of word origins and our everyday words don’t tend to be of purely Latin origin. Also, French is descendent of Latin anyway. But that’s how it was explained back when I first came across the idea so that’s what I stick with. (Feel free to make up your own distinction.)

Like the sight vs hearing above, the idea is quite simple, but the background is a bit complicated, and it starts with Latin. At least the Romans. Who, in the first century, wandered over to the islands in the west and took their language with them. Then a few centuries they went away (leaving their language behind). The Angles and Jutes and Saxons came over next, and they also brought their language. Now if you take that, and mix in some of the Latin of the native speaker, sprinkling with their Brittonic languages and add a dash, well more than a dash, of Old Norse, then you end up with what we call Old English. A language which is mostly incomprehensible to a speaker/reader of Modern English and yet it provides many of the words we use everyday , albeit with a few changed vowels and some letters added or dropped, (e.g Angles land –> England).

Next to arrive are the Normans and–strangely enough–they bring their French language. (Now, I’ll point out that this isn’t actually the same language as Modern French, but we guessed that, right?) So we have the ruling classes speaking this old form of French and and the general population speaking their English (not to mention the Latin users), and the French words got mixed in with the English words, and that is why we have two different words for the same/similar things.

Like battle (Old French) vs fight (Old English), or forgive (OE) vs pardon (F). I found a list of them the other day. And if you’ve ever wondered why the words for various meats are so differnee to our words for the animals of origin, well guess what! (That’s in that list too.)

(The English story obviously doesn’t end there. It has another millenia of evolution and word borrowing to go, and many of those words hopped over the channel from France. Thousands of them. Here’s a list!. They include words that end in -re, -tion, -ge or -ette, and those words where you wonder how that combination of letters produces that sound, like cafe & facade & the abomination that is manoeuvre. Not to say the “fancy” words are all French. Many of our polysyllabic words, especially technical terms/jargon are Greek (poly- is Greek) and there’s a lot of borrowing from Latin, especially words that snuck in from the sciences.)

So, back to writing dialogue. The French-originating words have a slightly different feel to the OE-originating words. If you have a passage of writing that uses words mostly from one source, then the difference is enhanced. So, if you have a character that tends* to use one source and a character that tends to use the other, they’re doing to sound distinctive. Like I said, a simple technique (which a complicated backstory). This also works for the narrator as well.

* “Tend” because regardless of which group of words a character prefers, there are situations where one or the other is appropriate. (You generally don’t buy cow from a butchers.)

Now, I’m not saying you need to look up the origin of every word you use, although the lists will help, but really it’s about paying attention to the origins of the words you use and thinking about how they sound/feel.

But if you are interested in looking up the origins of words (and this not only interesting but helps with spelling) then the Online Etymology Dictionary is a good place to start. (Just look at the first mention of an origin. If you follow words through to their roots it can get confusing and you’ll start following trails into other word origins and not get any writing done.) Wikitionary also often includes (simplified) etymologies, as does any decent online dictionary site such as Merriam Webster or Dictionary.com (scroll down). And if you’re interested in where our words come from and like Wikipedia lists, there is a page of lists!


Images: Pelican, Mildura 2019 & extract from a page from the first section of the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 9th century; Wikimedia Commons

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