• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Finding a Character's Voice

  • Thread starter Deleted member 4265
  • Start date

Deleted member 4265

Usually I'm pretty good at writing dialogue. One of the first things that comes to me when I'm creating a character is what they're going to sound like. But I've just started working on a new story where the main character around fourteen which is a bit younger than the characters I'm used to writing and her voice just isn't coming to me.

No matter how I try to write her dialogue it just doesn't feel right and it throws me out of the story. In fact it got so distracting that I decided to just take away her voice which worked great. Her body language and actions gave such a powerful sense of who she was that dialogue could only take away from that.

But then the story of how she lost her voice fascinated me so much that I made it the plot so now I really need to find a voice that works for her.

Has anyone else had a problem like this or have any tips on writing dialogue for younger characters?


Article Team
For me, I think it's best not to focus on what a 14 year old sounds like. Focus on what your character sounds like. There are childish sounding kids and mature sounding kids, and then there are all the kids in between.

I once heard an interview with an author who was worried that a black character didn't sound black enough. The author was white, so they brought their concerns to a fellow author who was black. That author said, don't worry about if the character sounds black enough. Worry about if the character X sounds like X enough.

IMHO, asking what a 14 year old sounds like isn't the question to ask, because there is no one generic way a 14 year old sounds. Approaching it from that angle leads one into bad stereotype territory. IMHO, asking what Sue, Betty, Veronica--whatever you character's name is--sounds like based on her background, her personality, and stuff like that is a more helpful approach.

My 2 cents.


Totally agree with PenPilot. To help you, perhaps read some middle grade novels, help kickstart your instincts.
Some fourteen year olds are very immature. Others sound pretty much like adults. There's no one way a 14 year old sounds.

I think your character is rebelling and refusing to talk because you're imposing your idea of what she "should" sound like into her. Instead, let her talk. Maybe write a scene in which she tells you about herself. Just write lots with her, whether it's part of the story or not, and let her talk.

However, i am fascinated by the idea that she's lost her voice...
I've been having trouble with this, too. It's easy [more or less] to write dialogue for the two Voirae in my book [guardian spirits], but the other five humanoid characters are tricky; they keep sounding the same to me.
It's kinda funny, but one of the most consistent dialogue traits that distinguish the characters in my WIP is how much/if and how they swear. I have one character who doesn't at all, one who will occasionally but prefers sarcasm and creative insults, and one who is just dropping swears left and right. (Sometimes juxtaposed with expressions like "Oh dear me" cuz I think it creates a hilarious effect.)

Probably irrelevant to the topic at hand, but, you know. Made me think of it.


Article Team
James Scott Bell has a great couple of books that might help you. One is Writing Dynamic Dialogue and the other is Voice (an author guide). I highly recommend both due to the exercises in the books that help with improving and distinguishing between character and author voice.
  • Like
Reactions: Geo
Along the lines of what Penpilot said, you can consider a trait that almost all 14-year-olds have, and that is a certain kind of myopia that restricts their ability to see "the big picture." This affects people of all ages, heh, but there is a circumspection that those who are older might develop—due to more experience having had their bubbles burst over the years, in ways they can hold in mind—that allows more opportunity to step back and listen at least if not totally change their POV. This is not an either/or thing, but more of a continuum that different 14-year-olds and older teens and adults will fall on; but, there is a tendency for those younger to fall more often on one side.

This can take many forms because people are different, including 14-year-olds, so the special area of myopia will vary. One might turn every conversation around to draw out info relating to her image and social status in school, the church, and family. Another, more scientifically minded teen might be hyper focused on the scientific implications, the discovery of new science or what various institutions might be doing with science or even whether his school has a better science curriculum than some other school. Another could be super focused on dominating every encounter, in word and deed—or being able to slip around the margins relatively unobserved, unscathed, and free to observe what's happening.

So these are different traits your character can have. Probably, choosing more than one area of interest or habit of conversation would be good—especially, relating to different milieus, like school and family and groups of kids/adults—and when creating dialogue surrounding situations and events that don't easily fall into familiar territory, the kid would react from habit as if those situations were familiar.


Darby Jones finally comes out of the interview room and tells his friends, who are waiting outside for their turn to be interviewed by the FBI, "They're asking a lot of questions about Dylan Shoemaker."

Melissa: "Why would they be asking about him?" [Girl who has every student in the high school on a mental chart of who matters and who doesn't.]

Sam: "Does it have anything to do with the new virus? Dylan's failing advanced biology." [Kid very interested in the news of what's happening in his state re: some odd virus that's suddenly appeared; probably, for this story he's right, simply because this sort of sudden info would be weird in any other story, heh. But the virus might simply be a relatively unimportant symptom of something far bigger. I.e., there's a "bigger picture." And maybe he is wrong, because he's the character we've set up to be obsessed with unimportant nerdy stuff, and the story's about something entirely different.]

Johnathon: "It's nothing to do with the virus. That kid's probably just a school shooter waiting to happen. Let's get this over with and head to Joe's." [Kid who wants to dominate the conversation, their plans for the evening, thinks he knows what's what, won't let the FBI's activity have any relevance to these things, etc.]

Emily: [Says nothing. Observing. Doesn't want to contradict Johnathon.]


The problem is two-fold I think.

First, these characters can begin to seem like caricatures or mono-tone, the whole thing can become an unrealistic melodrama, if the myopia is consistently on-the-nose, hitting the reader over the head with a single personality trait and interest. If Sam brings up something sciencey every single utterance, he'll become tedious probably (unless he's just one of those side characters used for comic effect; but even then, it can become tedious.) So digging into the root causes of these traits is useful. Maintaining the general tone and voice focus without being so direct will help to keep them from becoming caricatures. Maybe Sam sometimes freaks out when his dad does something he doesn't understand; his focus on science is his desire to understand, have knowledge, in order to feel in control. This could set up an interesting dynamic with Johnathon, who is always trying to dominate. Maybe Johnathon tries to dominate because he's afraid of a lack of control, he's afraid of seeing things (being observant) and not knowing how to deal with those things. Etc. 14-year-olds will tend not to see or understand these things about themselves—like some adults, heh, but the younger teens haven't had as many experiences to make them more conscious and cautious vis-a-vis their particular myopia. Working with the trend while suggesting a possible maturation ahead in their lives might help you develop a particular voice.

The second problem happens when the character in question is the main POV character and the narrative is intimate, whether first person or third intimate. In my personal opinion, unless you are writing middle grade, an intimate 14-year-old POV should be somewhat unreliable, due to that myopia.* The reader is receiving all information through a character who has not developed deep personal understanding learned via years of experience. So there could be a tendency to create dialogue for the character that simply reiterates everything already communicated through the narrative. E.g.,

Johnathon's bullying drove her mad. He never listened, always had to have his way. She said, "I'm sick of this! Johnathon, have you ever considered that others might have something they want to do?"

Ok, so maybe that works, or maybe that's wasted space, on the nose, and trending toward melodrama as a dominating style. This might depend on how often this sort of thing occurs in the story, where the POV narrative observation is pretty much reiterated in the dialogue driven by those intimate internal realities.

The danger is that the hyper-focused myopia might be poured through a narrow funnel, in both narrative and dialogue.

For me, the solution is to stick a little more to the myopic sensory POV—the POV character isn't always able to understand her own feelings about what she experiences but nonetheless experiences them. So I might do something like this:

Sam said, "The science fair is this Saturday. Maybe we could ask around, see if anyone's doing something with viruses?"

"It's a waste of time. You think someone's just going to say, 'Yeah, I've been trying to create new viruses?' Anyway, Joe's having a pool party on Saturday. If you want to ask around, you can ask around there."

Johnathon shrugged and started flipping through his Muscle & Fitness. Sam's eyebrows twisted in the way they always do when he's trying to solve a problem, but his shoulders sagged and he was beginning to fidget with his smartphone. Emily said, "I'm sick of this! Johnathon, have you ever considered that others might have something they want to do?"

The moment hung in the air. Had she really said that? Johnathon was looking at her like she had just transformed into Cthulhu. Or the Easter Bunny. For that matter, so was Sam.

She said, "All I meant is that the science fair seems like the most obvious place to look around."

In other words, I might limit the POV character's self-awareness a little bit in the narrative, to prevent the sort of on-the-nose repetition in dialogue. But I might instead focus the dialogue on what the character wants to achieve, how she is using the dialogue to create the reality she wants instead, like

Johnathon's bullying drove her mad. He never listened, always had to have his way. She said, "Wouldn't the science fair be the most obvious place to look? Joe's probably going to have you DJ again, anyway."

Okay, hah, I don't really know if making Johnathon DJ is a thing already established in a previous scene. I couldn't think of a better way to say, "Joe's going to dominate," heh. Perhaps in an earlier scene, Johnathon got mad because he was stuck doing the music at a party. But Emily's tendency to observe and try to calm things might come out in the dialogue she chooses to use.

None of this stuff really tells you which words to choose for the dialogue, but I hope this points toward a process for finding that 14-year-old voice for your character.

*Even with middle grade, I'd be tempted to use some unreliability for the intimate POV, mostly in the way unexpected things, situations, and reactions happen. But I think there might be a bit of "super kid" flexibility, given the age group of those readers. I'm no expert on middle grade fiction, heh.
Last edited:


Article Team
Similar to what Fifthview suggested above, I read an amazing exercise in a book on writing comedy recently that really stuck with me. Here is the basic idea:

1) Make a list of four of your closest family members or friends.
2) Beside their name, describe that person in one or two words. Not visual appearance, but personality trait. (be honest. No one will see it but you.)
3) Imagine those four people are stuck in an elevator. Based on their personality, how would they respond? What would they be doing? Saying?

I did:
1) my mother in law - over reacting/paranoid
2) my dad - micromanager
3) my nana - planner
4) my sister - sensory sensitive

If they were stuck in an elevator together it would be madness. My mother in law would be sure that every tiny ache or pain she had was a heart attack and she was going to die because no one could get to her in time. My dad would be trying to order everyone around, pretending he was a secret agent out of Mission Impossible or James Bond who knew all the ins and outs of elevators. He would be trying to get the top off and heading into the shaft. My Nana would have a purse full of Werther's Originals, and probably a few paperback romances. She would take the time to read and knit and tell everyone about the time in 1942 when there were air raids in London and she had to go live in the country. My sister would be nauseous from everyone's body odors. She would get cranky and angry and criticize everyone on how disgusting they are and why didn't they shower? And who farted?

Doing this exercise with people you know really well will help you to be able to give similar characteristics to your characters. It is important to remember that each character MUST have their own goal in each scene. The way they act or speak will reflect those goals or perceptions.

As far as 14 year old character voice, don't sweat it. You can't make yourself sound like a fourteen year old. Don't worry about it. I've known a wide range of fourteen year old's.
Last edited:


Article Team
In other words, I might limit the POV character's self-awareness a little bit in the narrative, to prevent the sort of on-the-nose repetition in dialogue. But I might instead focus the dialogue on what the character wants to achieve, how she is using the dialogue to create the reality she wants instead, like

I do this a lot with my twelve year old character. Limiting self awareness is pretty important, actually, as typically they have no clue what they are feeling or thinking, let alone have the adult capacity to articulate it.

Johnathon's bullying drove her mad. He never listened, always had to have his way. She said, "I'm sick of this! Johnathon, have you ever considered that others might have something they want to do?"

Exactly. Too on the nose, and way more self aware than most fourteen year olds. I find myself doing this a lot:

"I'm sick of this! Johnathon, have you ever considered that others might have something they want to do?" I snapped. I don't know why I said it. I liked Johnathon, for the most part. He was one of my oldest friends. But looking at him, now, under the glare of the florescent hall lights everything about him made me queazy. His shiny forehead, and the red scab on his chin, and his jeans that i had never noticed were too short.

So basically I use a sort of deflection. Like, the narrator thinks she knows why he is irritating her, but it is almost never the real reason and it is almost always "in the moment". The fact that he is irritating and she snaps at him is enough. The reader can piece together the real reason on their own.


toujours gai, archie
Interesting thread. It got me thinking in a couple of directions. One, if characters are in the equivalent of a medieval village, to what extent would they *not* be myopic? No one in the village knows much beyond it. I suppose an adolescent might still be rather self-centered, but one who was not ... I dunno, it just got me thinking. Everything that's been said so far presumes a modern, tech society and I wondered if things are different for pre-modern. Medieval people did indeed see adolescence as its own category. One source I can remember talks about that age being reckless and impulsive (my words, not theirs).

The other thought this inspired is somewhat related. It's the corollary I always try to explore: is it the same with dwarves? Elves? Ogres? Giants (a petulant giant ... eek!). Teen angst in a dragon. If we take elves to be the typical long-lived version, does this mean the teen elf Goth phase lasts like a century? :)

As you can tell, I have not followed these thoughts very far. Just ripples in the pond.
I feel amused to follow this conversation. Delving into the mysterious depths of fourteen year olds. I was fourteen not too long ago. I don't know how to describe it other than that I was a human, who hadn't experienced many important things yet. :/ Fourteen year olds are almost as diverse as any age group...fifty five year olds, or any.


Article Team
I'm pretty sure 55 year olds know more about life than 14 year olds. Just taking a stab in the dark here.

OP: voice differentiation comes with time and practice. One neat trick I've learned is to let your characters ramble (as a practice). Let whatever words come and flow. Read back over it and get a sense of who they are, how different they sound. For ex (from a WIP because it's easier to share what I mean):

Robert: “Lila’s nothing but trouble. Hear me out, friend. You keep your distance from that pretty face because it comes attached to lying lips. There isn’t a well behaved bone in that body of hers. She’ll chew you up, spit you out, then ask if you want seconds.”

Kent: “What’s with the two of you? Can’t you just ignore each other?”

“Oh, I’ve had it hit me before with a two by four and that went to hell in a handbasket.” (referring to love)

Lila: “Figures. I was going to ask Robbie for one but he’d sooner light himself on fire.” (asking Kent for a lighter)

3 different personalities that sound different in my head and should as well on paper. Sometimes letting them write journal entries helps, too.
Last edited:
I was fourteen not too long ago, too. I felt older than every single person in high school, including the teachers, and that feeling continued into university.

So at least i'm not the only one with that feeling. Sometimes I say i feel older than my age, but that's not quite true. It's more like i have parts of me that were made just yesterday, and parts of me that are still five years old, and some that are seventy or eighty, and some parts at my core that are millennia old.


toujours gai, archie
I approach character voice differently. I do not for an instant believe my characters somehow exist externally to myself. It's me writing that dialog, not them. So, how do I create voices? I think about them.

Talysse, my main characgter, is a unique case in my world, so I'll leave her aside. Her sidekick, as it were, is the gnome Detta. What sort of voice should she have? The first thing is her cultural background. Gnomes are obsequious, even servile in their relations with other peoples. They don't merely show respect, they do all they can to avoid conflict, openly challenging others, or openly causing grief. So that has to be there. Beyond that, she is compagnon to Talysse, a specifically gnome-other relationship that brings special responsibilities but also special privileges. She can talk to Talysse in ways she would never speak to others. Finally, there are the specific adventures and situations in which she finds herself, and she will react in specific ways. All that provides opportunities for Detta to speak in a particular way.

Similar considerations enter into how my elf chevalier speaks, how my Catalan troubador speaks, and so on. My characters never surprise me, any more than I can somehow contrive to sneak up on myself. But what I can do is to understand my characters as thoroughly as possible. And I can invent situations to let them talk in ways not directly related to the plot. I got this from an advice column somewhere: let your secondary characters talk among themselves. So I have a file where Detta talks to Jehan the elf, another where Jehan and Gonsallo talk, where the three of them talk. I doubt I'll use any of it directly, but letting them talk about just stuff lets me look at them from new angles. The more conversations my characters can have off stage, the more genuine will be their dialog when they are on stage. It says here.

I say all this not to denigrate anyone else's approach, but to offer an alternative to those who, like me, don't really get the whole "let your characters lead" approach. I know it's a real thing; it's just not my thing.
Skip makes a great point.

A character's general personality is not the only thing that shapes how characters speak. Socio-economic conditions, cultural influences, and personal family history will have a big influence. I remember as a young kid in elementary school having some of my word choices pointed out to me by teachers and feeling very embarrassed. I had learned how to speak from my parents, of course, Some of the things they said were influenced by their own regional upbringing. Some of my attitudes and ways of communicating had become so natural to me that I did not realize the little oddities and speaking habits.

A lot of that had disappeared by the time I was 14, but I have the public school system to thank for that. If I'd been in a medieval setting, chances are very good I'd have continued to follow in the family tradition, heh. Maybe even in that setting, I might have found myself apprenticed to some master tradesman from a slightly different background, or have been a servant on some estate, and have picked up new ways of speaking by age 14.

So when considering a 14-year-old's speech, knowing the cultural background and economic background would be as important as knowing those deep psychological and personality traits.
Last edited: