Tone, Timbre, Pitch: How to Describe Your Character's Voices
One of the biggest challenges in writing a novel is ensuring your characters sound different from one another. You don’t want carbon copy characters who all talk the same.
After all, reading isn’t a visual medium, so while you can use descriptions to differentiate characters, in the end, your readers are really going to differentiate them in how they speak and act. Your readers are building these characters in their heads, so you want to offer them as many cues to tell them apart as possible. It will make for a better reading experience and ensure your characters are more memorable.
If this sounds hard, maybe it is a little, but it’s one of those things you’ll get better at with practice. And simply understanding that the concept of differentiating voices exists is already half the battle won.
The good news is I’m going to help you break it down a little so this challenge feels a little more manageable. In this article we’ll talk about:
- Components of voice
- Different types of voices
Components of Voice
First, let's talk about what the components of voice are. Just to be clear, we aren’t talking about your writing voice, which is a term you’ve likely heard before. Writing voice is about how you as an author express yourself on the page. And you can read more about developing and finding your author voice in this article.
No, what we’re talking about is literally how a character speaks. As in, what is their literal voice? This is an important distinction for the purposes of this discussion.
This refers to the “quality” of someone’s voice. Someone might speak in a shocked or enthusiastic tone. Or their tone might be somber or sarcastic. You can imagine how making use of tone can be used to convey not only the mood of your character, but the story itself.
This is a word that is often used to refer to musical instruments and the sound a particular instrument makes. You can use timbre for your characters as well. Timbre also refers to the specific texture or color of a voice.
I know that sounds a little out there, but think about descriptions you’ve heard where this might work. His voice was like honey. Her voice sounded like smoke. Their voice reminded me of velvet-soft petals. When you put it like that, see how you can make use of timbre to convey how a character sounds. Even without hearing it, you get a sense of what someone with a voice like spun sugar sounds like.
This refers to the highness or lowness of a voice. This is a great one used to help describe your character. You can expect that a small child is going to have a higher pitch than a grown man, for example.
You can also use pitch to convey personality. Someone who is stoic and calm can have a low voice versus someone who’s excited and energetic who has a high voice. Or you can flip those expectations and really mess everyone up.
This one is probably obvious. Volume is literally how loudly or quietly someone speaks. You can use this to convey character personality—a very confident character might speak loudly while a nervous and shy one speaks quietly.
You can also use volume to convey the tone of the scene. If things are tense and your character is at risk of discovery by their enemy, then obviously they’re going to be speaking more quietly than a character trying to get the attention of a giant with the purpose of creating a distraction.
Rate is the speed at which someone talks. If your character is a fast talker, this might suggest they’re impatient or lack good listening skills. Maybe they’re not particularly honest and like to speak quickly with the hopes that people won’t hear everything they’re saying. A fast talker is sometimes a nervous person who wants to get the words out quickly.
Conversely, a slow talker might be a mentor type who has endless wisdom to share but is in no hurry to get there. A slow talker might be a character who thinks the person they’re dealing with isn’t very bright and is being a little condescending. You can also use slow speech to convey information that is extremely important and your character is taking their time to ensure every detail is accurate.
The world is obviously made up of so many people from so many places, and that means we all have different accents, whether we’re speaking in our native tongues or not. You can, of course, use an accent to convey where someone is from, their class, or use it to convey the period in history that your story is taking place.
To convey an accent, you can go the route of simply stating “this person has an upper crust British accent” or you can take it a step further and attempt to write the accent using visual text cues. We aren’t going to go into it in depth here, but there are resources out there on how to write a southern accent or Scottish brogue, for example.
A word of caution, though. If you’re going the route of trying to write an accent through your dialogue, be mindful that you don’t go overboard. It can be really difficult for a reader to immerse themselves into your story if they’re spending too much effort trying to figure out what the heck your character is even saying. Less is more in this case.
And finally, be very mindful of the accents you use and how you convey them. Going too far with accents can be at best annoying and, at worst, outright offensive to those whose real life accents mirror the ones you’re attempting to convey. Be careful you're not creating harmful stereotypes or caricatures of the people you’re writing.
Different types of voice
Below is a list of different voice types and how you can make use of them. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas on how different voices can be used to demonstrate various personalities and moods. Voice isn’t just about the sound you hear but also the emotion it conveys.
- Adenoidal/Nasally - A voice where the sound seems to come through the nose. Often used to convey someone who is annoying.
- Appealing - A voice that suggests someone wants to be helpful or useful. Might be used when someone wants to win another person over.
- Breathy - A voice that sounds like someone is out of breath. Could be used after intense physical exertion or used when writing amorous scenes.
- Brittle - A voice that sounds hard and worn. Could be used for a character who is experiencing their lowest moment or is very angry.
- Croaky - A voice that sounds like someone has a sore throat or is having trouble speaking. Could be used for a character who hasn’t spoken in a long time or is ill.
- Dead - A voice that conveys no feeling or emotion. Used for characters who want to intimidate or for a character who has lost everything and feels they have nothing else to lose. Also a great one for a villain or evil character.
- Disembodied - A voice that’s coming from a source you can’t see. Good for using in ghost stories or for characters experiencing voices in their heads.
- Flat - A voice that lacks intonation and doesn’t go up and down. Might be used for a character trying to show no emotion or for one experiencing trauma or sadness.
- Grating - A voice that is unpleasant or annoying. Can be used to show an irritating character or even the mood of another character who perceives every voice around them to be grating.
- Gravelly - A voice that is low and rough. Could be used for a grumpy character or during an intense moment.
- Gruff - Similar to gravelly, but a bit more impatient. Might also be used for a grumpy character or to convey irritation or frustration.
- Guttural - This is a sound made deep in the back of your throat and could be used to show a character that is struggling with anger or frustration. Or perhaps arousal.
- High-pitched - A voice that is shrill and grating. Might be used on a character that is meant to be annoying or one that is trying to raise an alarm.
- Hoarse - A voice that is low or rough, usually due to a sore throat or a long period of screaming. Could be used for a character that has just undergone a long stretch of torture.
- Honeyed - A voice that is sweet and mellifluous. Could be used to convey false niceness in a character or used to show a soft and kind character.
- Husky - A husky voice is deep and sounds hoarse, often in an attractive way. A great one for romance novels and romantic moments.
- Low - Either a deep voice or someone speaking quietly. Can be used to convey personality through someone who has trouble speaking up or the mood when your characters need to be stealthy.
- Matter-of-fact - A way of speaking that is plain and simple. Could be used for a character who’s trying to break a hard truth or is fed up. Also can be used to convey a character’s personality.
- Modulated - A voice that is controlled and pleasant to listen to. A good way to show a specific type of character’s temperament.
- Monotonous - A voice that doesn’t change in loudness, pitch, or intonation, making it very boring to listen to. Could be used to convey a dry character or a boring moment for one of your characters.
- Orotund - A voice that is loud and clear. Could be used when very important information is conveyed or to show a character who is confident in themselves.
- Penetrating - A voice that is too high or loud to the point that it makes you uncomfortable. Could be used to show your character’s dealing with an antagonist or illustrate an overbearing character.
- Plummy - A voice that conveys a sense of them being “upper class”. Often associated with a British accent. Could be used to show a snobby or snooty character.
- Raucous - A voice that is loud but with a rough edge. Could be used to convey the personality of a character or the mood of an event, like a party.
- Ringing - A very loud and clear voice—good for the herald who’s come to bear some news.
- Rough - A voice that is hard and hard to listen to. Could be used for an evil or angry character.
- Shrill - A loud, high, and piercing voice that is unpleasant to listen to. Good for annoying characters or an unpleasant situation for your protagonist.
- Silvery - A voice that has a clear, light, pleasant sound. Could be used for an ethereal type of character, like an angel or a faerie.
- Singsong - A voice that rises and falls in a pleasing and musical way. A good one for your local bard or a character with a pleasant personality. Or perhaps an annoying character depending on how you frame it.
- Small - A voice that is gentle, timid, or quiet. Great for conveying an insecure or scared character.
- Smoky - A voice that conveys sexual attraction, sometimes for a mysterious character. Great for your cloaked or hooded character in the shadows or your hot love interest.
- Softly spoken - A voice that’s quiet or gentle. Good for a soft character.
- Stentorian - Someone who’s loud and severe. A good one to help convey a character’s personality.
- Strident - Another variation of a loud voice, but in this case, it’s also specifically unpleasant. Can also be used to convey a specific character trait.
- Taut - A voice that is clipped or strained and can be used to show someone who is either scared or angry.
- Thick - A voice that sounds unclear due to emotion. Perfect for sad scenes and powerful moments.
- Thin - A high voice without much substance. Might convey someone who is sick or injured or could be used to show an unpleasant character.
- Throaty - A growly type of voice that comes from deep in your throat. Great to use for angry characters or love scenes.
- Tight - Similar to taut with clipped words that can be used to demonstrate irritation or anger.
- Toneless - A voice that shows no emotion. Can be used for a character who is trying to put on a brave face or an evil character who truly feels no emotion.
- Tremulous - A voice that lacks steadiness due to fear or excitement.
Don’t forget that not all “voices” are auditory. You can also make use of body language and sign language to convey someone’s voice.
Maybe you have a character that cannot speak and only uses hand signals or written notes to communicate. In this case, think about how you can use that to convey their personality and mood. You’ll want to pair that “voice” with their expressions and their body language to get the message across.
Now that you’ve given unique voices to all your characters, it’s time to read up on other ways to make your characters shine. Check out our resources at DabbleU, where we’re creating new articles every week to help you write your best novel.
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