Grammar. It seals the deal and sells books. We writers wouldn’t get very far without it. So, for that reason, we of course need to learn at least the grammar basics, and preferably more. It may not always be the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, but it is essential. However, we sometimes overlook the other lesser-known areas of writing that grammar will help improve. One big example is character voice. Now, any creative writing student can tell you that each character should have a distinct voice. You do not want all of your characters to sound the same; even more, you certainly do not want all your characters to sound like you personally. Luckily, you can learn a few tricks to give variety to your characters, and, surprise, these tricks all come straight from grammar textbooks.
Trick #1: Sentence Variety
My cat ran away.
My cat quickly ran away down the long hallway because of a mouse.
My cat quickly ran away down the long hallway, desperate to escape the mouse which apparently scared my much bigger pet.
Above, you will see sentence variety at work. All three sentences are varying levels of length as well as give different amounts of detail. Basic grammar teaches us how to properly structure and punctuate sentences of varying lengths. Little did you know that this knowledge extends past the grammatical sphere. Characters, like real life people, speak using different sentence patterns. Some people are more likely to use short, simple sentences, while some characters may give long-winded, overly detailed novels. For example, maybe Character A would explain, “My cat ran away,” while Character B would use the longest version of the explanation. Character B might, unlike Character A, see the situation as comedic, as well as an opportunity to regale his or her audience of the adventures of this Cowardly Cat. The long, sweeping sentences would help convey this to the readers, unlike the short, simplistic “My cat ran away.”
Now, although this is a fairly basic explanation, it works on all scales. This is an important principle to master if you want individual characters. Character A might be impatient and to-the-point, therefore speaking in shorter sentences. Character B, on the other hand, thrives under the spotlight and sometimes over talks. Then, on the flip side, you can use sentence structure to show disruption in a character. When Character B, well established to your readers as a big talker, suddenly reverts to monosyllabic conversation, or Character A goes off on a very detailed tangent without any punctuation, the readers will know something is up. Simply. this is a major plot device for any writer to practice and master.
Trick #2: Vocabulary
Character C: “What a delightful venue! With the proper lighting, in addition to these delectable entrees, the wedding will be spectacular!”
Character D: “Yum! Is this caviar? It looks totally fancy!”
So, vocabulary. It’s pretty obvious the difference vocabulary makes when you compare Character C and Character D. Already, just from reading the two different pieces of dialogue, you as the reader will already form assumptions about each character. Some characters, like perhaps Character C, will use more sophisticated forms of vocabulary daily, which may show a different upbringing, living, or education. Character D, on the other hand, uses much more casual language, as well as slang; this implies a more laid-back, Average Joe character.
Once you have established a basic level of vocabulary for your characters, it gets even more interesting. Now, we humans tend to speak differently depending on the situation and the people we are speaking with. Perhaps Character D typically uses vocabulary similar to Character C, but Character D feels comfortable with Character C and thus lessens up on the whole you-better-grab-a-dictionary-to-understand-me language. Experimenting with vocabulary depending on the situation will further help cement characters and their relationships with those around them; in short, it is a great trick to create character voice.
Trick #3: Grammatical Correctness
And, finally, we come to how characters use grammar overall. Some characters will throw out “whoms” and “therefores” and it will just work with their characters; others might do the same thing and sound like pompous morons. Having a character specifically use fragments, “aint’s,” and double negatives will immediately signal to the readers, just as perfectly formed sentences will also say something to your audience. Like Trick #1 and #2, this step also demonstrates level of education, experience, lifestyle, personality, etc. of a character. It can also help villainize a character. A character with atrocious grammar and an overall rude disposition will not endear him or herself to the reader. Similarly, a Grammar Nazi character whose favorite words are “antediluvian” (old-fashioned) and “chrysostomatic” (eloquent) will probably drive your readers nuts as well. These are simple tricks to form character voice as well as make characters either likable or downright annoying.
So, now you know the truth: knowledge of grammar can help with more than just proper punctuation. Character voice plays a vital role in creating an interesting and dynamic book, and mastering these three tips will improve the variety of your characters. Observing people in their conversations is the best way to learn how to apply these tips in writing. You’ll be surprised how much people vary in all three of these areas. If possible, even write down some conversations you overhear in a public place, like a coffee shop or park. This observation will go a long way in helping you get a feel for writing character voice. It may feel a bit creepy at first, but it makes a giant difference in creating authentic characters. From there, you may also want to write down specific character descriptions of how each character will talk (sentence length, vocabulary, and grammatical correctness). You may only need to describe the main characters, depending on the length of your writing piece. Then, start practicing and writing! Like every writing skill, it comes after enough drafts and scribbled papers. With enough effort, by the end of all that you will have unique characters with distinct voices.
Mackenzie Hendricks graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor in English. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.
She enjoys reading all types of genres, but her favorites are fantasy and historical fiction. In addition to writing nonfiction and scholarly articles, she also dabbles in creative writing in her spare time.