Breaking The Mirror: How to Write Character Voices To Not Reflect Your Own

It’s midnight. You’ve been staring at your beaming computer screen for about forty-five minutes, working on your ‘tan’. Bloodshot eyes peering through window drape-like eyelids. You know the directions you need to take to reach your destination, but you realize the vehicle doesn’t work. In this case, the vehicle is the voice of your character. And the reason it’s a steaming wreck? Your character’s voice too closely mirrors your own.

This is a very common obstacle for any kind of writer; after all, who is the one person that we can relate to the most and know the best? Yourself (at least you can only hope so). It’s important to have a foundation to work off of but strong foundations take time to construct. By utilizing ourselves as the main source of character development we could be “taking the easy way out,” thus making our starting points far more fragile. Here are 6 points that can assist you in breaking the mirror of reflection (rather than the foundation of your character development).

1 - How does your character answer questions and what words do they typically use?

Are their answers short and to the point, or do they always give “TMI”? What I mean by “TMI” is “too much information,” which has a very debatable origin. Some say you can find its origin back in 2001 from online communities, while others go as far back as WWI, where…. Ok, I think you get the idea. Also, what are the words they use within that answer? Some factors that come into play when thinking about this aspect are: gender, personal history and age.

For example:

  • Did your character grow up in a household where they were taught to be quiet until spoken too? This could lead them to being more to the point with their speech and not having as much of an active voice.
  • When it comes to age, thanks to Sociolinguistics, we’ve discovered that older people are less likely to use new words for things.
  • Also, because of Sociolinguistics, we’ve learned that men and women use language differently. For example, men are less likely to use words like “gorgeous” or “charming”. It is also important to know how gender changes how language is used based on the type of language they grew up speaking. For example, the greatest differences between male and female speech occurs in tribal languages spoken in places like Siberia, Micronesia and New Guinea.

2 - How does your character greet people?

Just like it was a choice for me to start this article with a story, you need to make a choice about how your character greets people. Think about how cultural differences, regional differences, and community environment can impact the voice of the character. Many greetings are formed by religious beliefs or superstitions while others are formed based around the roles of males and females within a society. Take these segmentations; add them to your other ingredients of personality and history. At this point, mix vigorously.

3 - Education.

Even though there are some overlapping layers with the previous point, there are enough differences to keep this segment separate. Education can potentially boost a character’s confidence, as they may know more about topics they speak on, thus having a far more active voice. Education can also lead to a larger vocabulary. This can become a double-edged sword though. As education can have an influence on speaking habits, the environment can also affect the educational information the character has learned. Perhaps this character is insecure and doesn’t want to come off as “snobbish” thus dumbing down their knowledge to fit in with a group of people. As you can see, the factors that create character can also create the obstacles we look for to keep the story engaging and relatable – embrace them!

4 - Turn the mirror away from you and onto someone else.

Use examples of real people, whose shoes are ones your character can walk in. This will give you a stronger sense of speech patterns, action/reactions and so forth. This will give you a stronger starting point, where you can build up motivations, fears, connections to other personality types and strengths/flaws. The more you know which puzzle pieces come together to create your character, the more ways you can find connections between those puzzle pieces and the how, as well as the why, of their speech.

5 - Understand the character’s career-appropriate language.

Let’s say this character is an accountant and they are attempting to describe why another character committed fraud. They need to be describing it based on their career experience, not yours (unless you’ve been an accountant – at that point, do you do taxes? Call me!).

6 - Flex your mental muscles!

An exercise you can do to find that unique voice is to write out a monologue the character would say in your story BUT (and there is always a but) write it as far from your own speech as possible. Push it to an extreme, even if it doesn’t make sense at first. Once you have that monologue, see where you can pull back those extremes. See where you can find middle ground, where the extremes can stay and where some similarity can reside. Sometimes it’s easier to tell yourself “less” rather than “more”. This exercise is even done by actors when working on scripts like yours. The goal is to push the character to as much of an extreme as makes sense so they can be pulled back to find a rhythm that works. With our ability to gauge what “less” means far better than “more”, kick it into high gear and find the speed limits that need to be followed (luckily writing doesn’t actually involve high-speeds).

Ok, enough procrastinating online! Get back to work! That script isn’t going to write itself.


Evin Charles Anderson

For more than a decade, Evin Charles Anderson has explored the intersection of performance, production and promotion. As the CEO and Creative Partner of Waverley Knobs, featured in Lifehack and CEO Blog Nation, he helps clients shape, shoot and share unique and engaging brand stories that inspire action, innovation and change. Evin’s independent, Hollywood and commercial film experience and marketing expertise means he not only knows how to visually tell a story for his clients, he knows how to position that story for real-world impact and business results.

In addition to running Waverley Knobs, Evin is a professional actor and director, as well as co-creator of the podcast Branch Out: THE Marketing and Digital Media Podcast. He also teaches acting, directing and marketing classes for the City of Cambridge in Massachusetts. Evin’s film Paperthin has been featured at The Magwill Film Festival in California, and Waverley Knobs’ short film, The Heist, has been featured in Examiner and MobileMovieMaker.

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