Guest Ashlyn Macnamara: Unique Character Voice

Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.

Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.

Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.

In the scene where she’s first introduced, she asks the hero’s name, saying, “It makes me feel funny not knowing someone’s name. Wrong-footed, you know, or as if I had three thumbs on one hand, if you see what I mean.”

A bit later on when she’s helping Taran escape from a dungeon, she says, “I do wish you’d stop worrying. You sound as if you’re having your toes twisted.” And just a bit later as they’re trying to ease through a narrow passage: “I feel as if I had all my bones taken apart and put together wrong.”

Her dialogue is peppered with little sayings like this, each one different, but not so often it becomes annoying. Her observations are unique and fresh, and you get the feeling the author had a great deal of fun thinking them up.

Another character from the series who has his own voice is Gurgi. Now, no one is quite sure what Gurgi is. He isn’t quite human, although he’s humanoid. He might be rather like a primate, only he can talk, and he has a very unique way of expressing himself—in rhyming pairs of synonyms. His main concern in life is having enough to eat, but he doesn’t ask for food. He asks for “crunchings and munchings.” When battle looms, he talks of “fightings and smitings”  or possibly “whackings and smackings.” Another thing he does—in common with Elmo, I might add, but I don’t imagine Gurgi’s voice as so annoying—is speak of himself in the third person.

A technique like this might be as easy as giving a character a particular epithet and playing with it. Thus you get King Smoit, a boisterous bruiser who enjoys nothing more than a good fight, unless it’s the feast that follows, who likes to swear by his body and bones. Or occasionally his heart, or other (G-rated—they’re kids’ books) parts.

Or you get Fflewddur Flamm, a bard who enjoys coloring the facts, because they so often need it (but he has a harp whose strings stretch every time he stretches the truth to keep him honest). He likes to exclaim, “Great Belin” often followed by “a Fflamm is ever valiant” or “ready” or whatever adjective fits the occasion.

So what you have here is the author assigning unique phrases and modes of speech to various character and then playing with them. He doesn’t necessarily stick to one catch phrase, but he keeps the pattern fresh and lively. I think this is a useful and clever little tool for characterization.

Far be it from me to claim I ever used this technique consciously. A lot of what I write comes straight from the gut. But my debut novel features two sisters with very different personalities. Sophia is flighty and lets her emotions rule her, so her pronouncements tend to be airy and breathy. Lots of ohs and ahs.

Julia is much more down-to-earth and prefers to let logic and good sense guide her actions. On top of that, Julia is good friends with a former cavalry officer. Her language, as it turns out, tends to use slightly more colloquial terms, possibly expressions she’s picked up from her friend. She thinks in terms like “dash it” and asks her friend if he’s foxed. At one point, she mentions how her sister’s “bagged herself an earl” much to her mother’s consternation.

Another of my characters who gets a lot of page time is the Earl of Highgate. The moment I dipped into his POV when I was writing the original draft of my story, he revealed a lot about himself through his thoughts on his sister:

Mariah was a stickler for the finest points of protocol. She’d happily spent all thirty-seven years of his life terrorizing him on such matters until they were drilled into his being. He’d always thought their father would have made a sound investment in buying her a commission—preferably in India. Said sister now advanced along the corridor, rather like an Indian elephant, less the trunk, of course.

The moment he thought that, I knew he was a bit snarky in his quiet way. Also he didn’t get along with his sister. Of course, when you meet his sister, you understand why. I’m not using particular phrasing with him, per se; it’s more an overall attitude he conveys here.

You can bet I’m going to pay closer attention to this aspect of character development in the future. Just so long as no one develops any annoying catch-phrases.

Now over to you. What little characterization tricks have you noticed authors using? Which ones do you use yourself?

One lucky commenter (US or Canada only, please) will win a copy of each of the Secret Curtsey Society’s debut novels. Who is the Secret Curtsey Society? It’s made up of the 2011 Golden Heart® finalists in the Regency category. Two of them are Rubies, and the other three have blogged here in the past. So the prize here consists of Sara Ramsey’s Heiress Without a Cause, Erin Knightley’s More Than a Stranger, Valerie Bowman’s Secrets Of a Wedding Night, Anne Barton’s When She Was Wicked, and my own A Most Scandalous Proposal. It’s a veritable Regency extravaganza!

Ashlyn Macnamara writes Regency romances with a dash of wit and a hint of wicked. Despite her insistence on looking toward the past, she can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Her debut A Most Scandalous Proposal is available at your favorite bookstore now.

After watching her beloved sister Sophia pine over the ton’s Golden Boy for years, Miss Julia St. Claire has foresworn love and put herself firmly on the shelf. Unfortunately, her social-climbing mother and debt-ridden father have other ideas, and jump at the chance to marry Julia off to the newly-named Earl of Clivesden…the man of Sophia’s dreams.

Since resigning his Cavalry commission, Benedict Revelstoke has spent his time in London avoiding the marriage mart. But when he discovers that the Earl of Clivesden has set Julia in his sights, Benedict tries to protect his childhood best friend from the man’s advances—only to discover more than friendship driving his desire to defend her. He surprises them both with the force of his feelings, but when she refuses him and her father announces her betrothal, he fears he’s lost her forever—until Julia approaches him with a shocking scheme that will ruin her for all respectable society…

…and lead them into an exquisite world of forbidden pleasures.


38 responses to “Guest Ashlyn Macnamara: Unique Character Voice”

  1. Kimberly says:

    I notice authors give a certain flare to their characters. Some are dramatic in their thinking but when the right thing comes along, they tone it down.

    • I think an author needs to make his or her characters unique, but s/he also has to keep them human. Even a person given to great dramatics isn’t like that all the time. You want interesting and believable. It always comes back to balance.

  2. The only characterization trick (that I can think of – but I haven’t had caffeine yet LOL) is that I try to put myself in my character’s shoes before writing a scene in their POV. I try to rattle around in their head a little and remind myself where they were in the last scene, what emotional state they should be in, and where they need to get to in this scene.

    And SO funny that you should mention Lloyd Alexander. I’d never heard of him or the Prydain series, but my 9-y.o. daughter loves a book she’s reading at school about a time-traveling cat. I had to look it up and I believe it was written by him, so I was actually looking at buying the series by him as well. Small world!

    • My characters kind of live in my head all the time. I’m not sure that’s a good thing to admit in public, though.

      I know which book you’re talking about with the cat. I never read that one as a kid, but I came across it recently and wondered why I’d never picked it up.

  3. Amanda Brice says:

    Great post, Ashlyn!

    One thing I like to do is write out passages of dialogue without any attribution whatsoever and see if you can follow the conversation, just going by the character’s voice. If not, then I know I need to do some work on improving unique voice.

  4. Hope Ramsay says:

    Hi Ashlyn.

    Congratulations on your new release!

    Character voice is something I pay a lot of attention to. I have characters who come from the south and they need to sound southern. But I also have characters who don’t come from that region and they need to sound different. For example, in Last Chance Beauty Queen, the hero is an Englishman, and I had to work hard to make him sound English. I spent a lot of time listening to the cadence of British English. BBC America was my friend. 🙂

    The heroine in Last Chance Christmas grew up on Long Island, and she had a certain New York manner in the way she talked. (And sometimes my editor hated her for it, which I found very interesting.)

    • That’s funny about your editor!

      I know what you mean about BBC America, since I end up with lots of English characters. I take great pains to make sure they don’t spout Americanisms. Or sound too modern, for that matter.

  5. Great topic, Ashlyn.

    Like Anne Marie, I spend time getting into a character’s head before jumping into scene, thinking about what just happened. Then I react. Everyone reacts differently to situations. I’ll write dialogue and POV in first person.

    Some characters will speak their mind quickly. Others will hold their tongue, digest their thoughts before they speak, using the same words they’ve rehearsed. Yet others think and express themselves in totally different manner, including no words, but action.

    We have to decided how our characters will react inorder to give them a truly unique voice. JMO

  6. Shoshana says:

    When I’m having trouble with a particular character, it sometimes helps me to rewrite a little bit of the scene first person from that character’s perspective–somehow that forces me into his or her head.

    Thanks for a great post, Ashlyn!

  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    Welcome, Ashlyn, and congratulations on your release!

    I write in deep third person POV, and one of the issues I have to continually be on the lookout for is remembering that even though I personally swear like a sailor, not every character does, or should. Prior to turning a manuscript in to my editor, I do a Word search on curse words, and explicitly assess, for each occurrence, whether the cursing is in character for that character in that specific situation. Some, not all, get cut. 😉

    • I run into a similar issue. With my heroes, they’re men of the world, so they’re allowed to be a bit freer with their language, in their heads if they’re in mixed company. But I have to have another pool of epithets for my female characters, because proper ladies have just not been exposed to that kind of language. So sometimes I have to stop and ask myself if a given character is going to think this or that, depending on the situation and their gender.

  8. Vivi Andrews says:

    Congrats on your most scandalous release, Ashlyn! It looks right up my alley.

    For unique character voice, I occasionally like to give a character a word or phrase that they have a habit of repeating – since I know I myself fall into word-ruts in my speech too. In my most recently completed mss, one painfully earnest character has a habit of dropping “you know” into her speech the way some people say “like.” Just a little thing, but it’s hers.

  9. Ella Quinn says:

    Wonderful post,and congratulations on your release, Ashlyn. I started reading it during lunch.

    All of my characters have come with their own personalities and ways of speaking.

  10. Liz Talley says:

    Hi, Ashlyn – congrats on that release. Woot!

    I’m much like Anne Marie – I like to climb inside my chracters and “be” that person, but sometimes it’s hard if my character has gone through tragic circumstances I haven’t or if he/she is so different from me, I can’t relate as well.

    I think I have the most fun with my secondary characters because I don’t have to be inside their heads as much. I can make conclusions about them based on their actions and I can motivate them without understanding them as deeply…and because the reader has more of a stake in my POV characters, I can allow my secondary characters to get away with things perhaps my primaries can’t.

    Nice topic and thanks for visiting 🙂

    • I think secondary characters are great, because you can allow them to have their quirks. Since they’re not on the screen as much, you can let them have some traits that might be annoying in a main character, and then you can just have fun with them.

  11. Jeannie Lin says:

    Wonderful topic! Now I’m going to have “crunchings and munchings” in my head all day.

    Dialogue and patterns of speech are a wonderful way to differentiate characters, as long as it doesn’t become a crutch as you mentioned. I haven’t ever been particularly good at it and will have to pay extra careful attention from now on.

    Congrats on your release! And the great thing about creating sisters is you get a bit of a two for one when it comes to a series. 🙂

    • Thanks for the congratulations, but I shot my wad on the sisters, so to speak. You get both their stories in the same book, and the next one is about one of the hero’s best friends instead.

      And I’m not sure I suggest a character who speaks in rhyme too often. It may get annoying in the end.

  12. Anne Barton says:

    Happy release day, Ash, and thanks for being here!

    This is such a great post on a great topic. I’d never heard of The Chronicles of Prydain, but the characters sound so quirky and fun I think I’ll check it out.

    • Thank you!

      I loved those books as a kid. They’re fantasy based on Welsh mythology, and I directly blame them for leading me to read Tolkien when I got old enough for it–and Lord of the Rings completely sucked me in. I’m not just a history geek. I’m a geek.

  13. Marcy Shuler says:

    Congrats on your release, Ashlyn!

    I’m a reader, not a writer, so this discussion has been interesting to me. I personally love it when a hero uses little endearments in another language. They may speak perfect English, but their heritage just comes through in those little intimate words they whisper to their leading lady. *sigh*

    • Oh, good point. My heroes tend to be British, but I’m personally partial to the way Brits call everyone “luv.” Only when the hero does it to the heroine, you just *know* it means more.

  14. Kate Parker says:

    Congrats on the release, Ash.

    Like you, I write historical characters, so not only do I need to get into a character’s head to get their dialog to sound right, I also must remember to sound as if I’m in that time period. Can’t have my heroine saying “Whatever” no matter what the provocation.

    • Hah, I went around with my crit partners when I was looking for a historical sounding equivalent to “that’s not my problem” or something similar. The words all existed, but the phrasing perhaps didn’t quite work for the Regency. Sometimes you just hear what you want your characters to say, but it’s just too modern.

  15. Your book sounds wonderful, Ashlyn, and this was a great post. I think writing dialogue which characterizes the cast may come more naturally to authors who also have a bend toward acting. However, it’s also necessary for a writer to really know each character intimately before she writes. Whenever I envision a scene, I can hear all of my characters speaking, each in his/her own distinctive voice that showcases his/her individual personality and quirks.

    • Well, that explains it, because I have very little acting experience. However, I do hear the dialogue in my head, and how it plays off each other as I’m going. OTOH, my heroes tend to have smart mouths. I have no idea where they get it…

  16. Debbie says:

    Congratulations on your release, Ashlyn. It sounds like my cup of tea. I’m only working on my second almost completed story and it’s closely tied to the first. When I revise I will definitely need to be sure I’ve paid attention to distinguish the two sisters’ speech. I’ve made a conscious attempt to do that in the second book, but I’ll need to be certain to carry it through.

    I just had an image of sorting coins. Pennies for punctuation and grammar, nickels for timing, dimes for dialogue, quarters for characterization, and half-dollars for plot holes. I have a feeling if I paid myself for finding these things I could afford my RWA conference fee 🙂

    • I like that idea. Like setting a swear jar aside, only you’re doing it with writing elements. And yes, we should pay ourselves for finding our errors. It’s not always easy to spot in our own work.

  17. Addison Fox says:


    What a wonderful post – I need to find these books!!! And congratulations on your new release!!

    I think your post hits on something else that’s really important. Our characters have to leap off the page, but we also need to get a sense of how they’re different from each other. Being somewhat conscious of that in the writing – even just keeping it in the back of our minds as we write – can be an important tool as we craft our stories.

    So glad you joined us today!

  18. Ashlyn, thanks so much for this great post. You’ve given me so much to think about, and I’m definitely going to have to look up that 5-book series!

    Thanks again, and congratulations on your release!

  19. bn100 says:

    Nice post. The way the characters speak.


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