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I've read many blogs which teach you how to give a unique voice to each of your characters. I feel I understand how to do it, but I think I'm a little stuck in the voice I've been using since I started writing.

I was wondering if there are some writing exercises to help me in this area?

(The only thing that comes to mind is to write a dialogue using people I know. But I'm not sure how effective that will be.)

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Some of my suggestions from this question may help: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/6965/… –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 20 '13 at 13:35
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Talk with the character once a day, any time you like, but not immediately before writing. In your mind, imagine your entire existence to be a talking head, exactly where your real head is in the real world. Imagine the character you talk to in front of you, in full-detail (head, body, clothes and gear). Think about how you're reacting to them and how you're showing your reactions. Then talk to them about their story. You know everything about their world, sure they'll have encyclopedias-worth of questions to ask. –  Mussri Jan 21 '13 at 16:54
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Worth pointing out: While this could (technically) be argued to be a question that could generate a near-infinite list, and would probably be closed on other Stack Exchange sites, I think it's fine. The question is asking for a fairly specific type of exercise. –  Neil Fein Aug 21 '13 at 14:32
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5 Answers

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I think that the easiest way to write engaging and organic dialogue is to know your character inside and out. This way, you will find their inner voice--their way of speaking, thinking. To know them is to let their unique voice ring true.

An exercise might be to compile a back history on your intended character and put them in a small "situation". Write a monologue for your character, a plan to get them out of the situation, either triumphantly or tragically. Etc., etc., for the rest of your characters.

Every character you can think of to write is merely an extension of yourself. We are all multi-faceted. Just dig in there and find that character in yourself.

Good luck.

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I can think of a fairly easy exercise.

Write a dialogue for 3 or more characters without ever identifying the speakers beyond the early introduction. Make sure the reader is able to tell them apart by their voices alone. Give it to someone to read (I think even posting that here would be okay) to see if you succeeded.

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One exercise would be to write a dialogue with characters from very different backgrounds. e.g. A poor French teenager, an old rich English man and a small town Texan housewife stranded in a train station waiting room. Besides their accents, try to capture expressions and attitudes appropriate for each character. For example the Texan might be very polite and indirect, as she comes from a small town. I guess I am saying think about how the character's age, sex, height, attractiveness, wealth, background, history and location could affect their way of speaking and how they would say it. Vary each of these things and write something from that perspective.

Another exercise could be to write a diary from a character's point of view to go alongside your story. The diary would be written directly in the character's voice - explaining what is happening in the story from their point of view and in their own language and voice.

A good example of these exercises is No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, where monologue chapters keep re-occurring in the book. These monologues are from Sheriff Bell, a Texan country sheriff getting near retirement. Bell uses expressions that I have never heard before, but also makes you feel how old he is, his regrets and his fears through the character's focus on how things used to be and his own failings. His voice is sad, tired, old, defeated.

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The exercise I use is to listen to a whole lot of other people talk: friends, family, even strangers at Starbucks. The best talk is when they tell stories, like what happened last night at the club. If you are naturally good at mimicry and pastiche, that may be all you need, but there are two additional steps I take.

First, I pretend I'm taking dictation and try to write exactly what was said. Just a sentence or two, I'm not a court reporter. Writing verbatim forces you to ignore your own voice and just be the pen, or more to the point, the ears. I also take notes on overall speech patterns when they are interesting or unusual. I once overheard a conversation between two people where one of them spoke nothing but questions and the other kept digressing to answer: Hanna was so weird last night after the wedding rehearsal ... Jane's wedding ... you know, my neighbor from where I lived before ... no, god, not that dump, the house I shared with Tisha and John ... no, he's still in rehab, ...

Second, I try writing some dialogue, or maybe a monologue, in a style of speech I'd practiced in Step 1, after I have enough material to have some ability to imitate and predict.

Bottom line, the more you listen to real people, the easier it becomes to give your characters different styles of speech.

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In order to write good dialogue, you have to be able to hear it. This takes a lot of listening, which of course you should be doing all the time.

But here's a way to practice listening, and then to develop it in stages into writing.

Pick out some movies or TV shows you like, and watch them in some format (such as DVD) that you can control. Pick an interesting character and listen to that character's speech over and over. And here's the crucial step: Work on imitating that character's style of talking. Start by just repeating the character's actual dialogue. Eventually throw in ad-lib dialogue in that character's style. Do it repeatedly until you can do an impersonation of that character. You want to be able to talk like that person, and if you can, then you know you are hearing that voice.

When you can hear a voice inside your head in that way, you can write in that unique voice.

So, once you have internalized a character's mode of speaking, sit down and write a short speech that you think that character might say to a friend about something going on in his or her life. At this point, you can begin to think about what kind of word choices, phrasings, hesitations, sentence lengths, interjections, and so on, are used by that person. These are all the verbal characteristics that make that person's voice unique.

Do this for enough characters, and you'll start to learn what it means to hear a character's voice inside your head, and you'll start to find yourself creating new voices to replace the one you felt stuck in.

And by the way, screenwriters often do something pretty much like this in order to get their dialogue the way they want it; basically they play the character by speaking the dialogue out loud to see if it works.

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