I recently caught up on a Netflix show I’ve been missing. Having been addicted to season one, I was looking forward to seeing the story unfold further. I cleared a few hours and binge-watched half a season. Production values did not disappoint – the show was visually stunning, skilfully directed, and the on-screen performances were compelling. One thing I did notice though, was that all the characters expressed their frustrations with exactly the same phrasing.
I’m an auditory writer, reader (and obviously, watcher). This means the sounds of the words are important to me. When I create a character, I give careful thought to how each personality expresses themselves. One of the simplest ways to differentiate one character’s voice from another’s, is to assign them certain dialogue phrases that they repeat in similar situations.
“Bloody hell!” Might be an expression of anger or disappointment for one character.
“Damn!” Might be the expression of another.
“Oh dear,” might be a more genteel way of indicating the same response for a more refined personality.
These can all be used in the same scenario, by different characters.
Perhaps we have a squire’s daughter attempting to climb a stile beside a muddy country lane. She is attended by her maid. A passing farmhand assists the ladies down from the stile, bungling it so the highborn lady falls into the mud.
The farmhand forgets himself and swears in front of the ladies (then begs their pardon, unless he’s surly. Is he surly?).
The squire’s daughter may delight in an utterance she’d never dare use in more exalted company. She's the rebellious sort, and enjoys the company of her companions without minding their class.
The maid may have her mind on how she’ll be up all night attempting to remove the dirt staining her mistress’s muslin.
Each character has a reaction to the same scenario. As individual personalities their response is not uniform so their mode of expression should not be so either. This makes it easier for the writer to create characters who stand apart from each other.
Similar, but Different:
I find family dynamics interesting. Creating these on paper for you all brings me joy, so in my novels, you’ll find a lot of siblings. I try hard to keep sibling voices similar, but differentiated. I begin by assigning specific expressions to each of them; their ‘pet phrases’ if you will. This keeps their voices separated in my mind and, hopefully, on the page.
Let me know if you’ve tried the above characterisation technique. Did it work for you?