One of the excellent concepts I picked up at GenreCon was ‘If you characters all sound the same, they sound like you’. And it makes sense, it is you who is inhabiting these characters and making them play their parts. But you really don’t want your antagonist to sound like you protagonist, and all the other characters. For one, it is going to make any conversation confusing … and boring. How can there be tension if everyone acts and reacts and speaks the same way?
There are several techniques to overcome this. My favourite is to give each of my characters their own ‘voice’, preferably based on someone I know really well. That someone can be an actor, a character in a movie or in an audio book, or real life person, but make sure you don’t copy them exactly – it would be confusing if Captain Jack Sparrow’s way of speaking was given to an Inspector in Scotland Yard in the Edwardian era.
Another method is give each of your characters a personal speech quirk in the same way you might give them a personal habit to build up their identity. Just as you might give them a visual cue – like untidy hair, or a twitching eye when they are nervous – you can give them an individual speech pattern. Maybe they start every sentence with a question. Maybe they have a very mild stutter on the letter ‘p’. It could be they always say ‘er’ before they say a name. A character might swear like a fishwife, or use very proper and precise language, or come from a non-English speaking background.
Be careful not to make the quirk annoying. I find phonetic spelling of dialect can be wearying to read and I know I’m not the only one. You have to walk the fine line between characterization and caricaturization; unless your deliberately exaggerating a character for humorous effect. Nor do you want any accent or dialect you give a character to be part of a stereotype; do your research; talk to an actual person from that background.
You should always make sure you use these techniques to layer and finesse your characterization, and not to work against it. Unless someone is a mad keen fisherwoman, or grew up in a fishing village, they aren’t going to use fishing jargon. A well-educated and polite gentleman will not talk in grunts (unless he is mute in some way). Conversely, having a daintily-dressed maiden aunt swear like a trooper might assist in providing some insight into her true nature and might help break the stereotype of older ladies being prim and conservative (look at the popularity of Auntie Mame).
A writer’s construction of character can be compared to an actor’s performance of a part. What the actor says isn’t more important than what the actor does, both aspects of the performance have to work together to create a balance. With creating a character, a writer has to balance what the character says with how the character says it. And – again – I can’t emphasize too much the importance of making the extra effort to have their own voice as well as their ‘look’ and ‘personality’.
When writing characters for a Steampunk story, an engineer will talk differently to a high society-obsessed gentleman. The engineer with have her own jargon (which should be kept to a minimum), be a rational and logical thinker, and have a curious and creative turn of mind, and all of this should be reflected in her speech patterns. The society gentleman will have different interests, probably in the opera and the Arts,or in horse-racing and card games, know about the latest fashion and gossip, and might be a bit of a ponce – and he will not speak in same manner as the engineer. They aren’t clones.