Who Goes There? The Importance of Writing Distinct Character Voices
If you’re a lover of stories, odds are you’ve formed an attachment to at least one character — whether that’s from a game, a movie, a book, or your favorite TV series. You’ve likely come to expect certain things from them: their cadence of speech, their sense of humor (or lack thereof), and how they behave in certain circumstances. A character’s voice is composed of these elements and much more, and their signature voice often has a huge impact on how we perceive their personalities and development throughout a narrative.
When I speak here about character voice in the context of creating a story, I mean:
The unique way characters express themselves, communicated through their personality, thoughts, and spoken dialogue.
So, what do strong character voices add to a story, especially when speaking about casual games? Isn’t it enough to have a story at all? Well, consider how that story is being delivered to the player. If a character or narrator is a vehicle for the story, the importance of giving them an engaging voice is suddenly at least as important as the narrative itself. The voices telling the story work in tandem with the visuals — and in the case of games, the gameplay — to set a scene worth spending time in. Would you go out of your way to spend time with someone dull, uninteresting, or unengaging? I wouldn’t either! The same idea applies to attracting people to your narrative. The importance of creating an appealing experience where all storytelling elements work in harmony cannot be overstated, and character voice is a huge — and often overlooked — piece of the puzzle.
At Brunette Games, we employ a variety of techniques to ensure our characters have distinct voices. While catchphrases and similar speech quirks can give a character some flavor, it’s detrimental to rely on such extremes. To portray personality more realistically, it’s helpful to imagine the people in your own life and ask yourself questions: How do they speak? How would they describe something differently than someone else you know? How would they tell a story? How do they react to good news versus bad news?
As you ask questions like these, you’ll come to see that voice permeates our daily conversations, often without us realizing. This is because people don’t often speak noticeably out-of-character, and when they do, it strikes us as odd. If we imagine our characters as people moving throughout and interacting with the world, we can paint a more believable picture.
This brings me to my next point: What are the consequences of neglecting character voice? Take the following scenario: You’re watching your favorite series when the main character makes a small comment in a dialogue exchange. It’s brief enough that you almost miss it, but it occurs to you that the line seems entirely out of place. “That’s not something they would say…” you think to yourself, and it distracts you for the rest of the episode. There could have been real moments of brilliance after the offending line was said, but a tiny slip in character stole the spotlight. Whether it’s the words themselves or their delivery, these moments are enough to take a viewer (or player) out of the experience. At worst — especially after repeated instances — it could even be enough to make one lose interest in the story as a whole.
It’s also worth noting that character voice for the sake of character voice is not the goal to strive for in storytelling. For example, a group of people trying to out-joke each other isn’t quite as interesting — or believable — as a single character playing that role in a social group. This provides much-needed balance and allows your characters to tackle issues with varying degrees of seriousness. While your class clown character is delivering her punchline in an otherwise tense moment, the leader of the group can work toward a solution to the problem. Both of these characters serve a purpose — neither more important than the other — and each has their own voice to support their assigned role. Stepping outside these boundaries results in dialogue exchanges that seem unnatural. It’s important to remove oneself from the character and remember that they have a part to play, regardless of how the writer or another character might behave differently. Forgetting to distinguish character voices can muddle the story delivery and confuse the audience.
Now that I’ve covered why character voices are key to an effective narrative, let me share some of the techniques we use at Brunette Games to strengthen them.
- Identify the character’s unique traits: Is your character timid? Rude? Honest? Impatient? Friendly? Nailing down her defining characteristics will very likely guide how the character speaks.
For example, a timid character might say, “Oh, gosh, I don’t know… Should we really be silly-stringing the boss’ office? We could get in trouble…”
While a more daring character might say, “Don’t be such a wuss! The boss had it coming after he switched all the coffee to decaf. What kind of monster does that?”
2. Identify the character’s role: Whether your character is a leader, follower, peacemaker, or antagonist will greatly affect how that person navigates conversations.
3. Confirm your character’s voice cannot be easily mistaken for another’s: If you read your dialogue line by line, can you tell which character is which without seeing their names? This is a great way to determine if your voices are distinct.
4. Let their background inform their behavior: Every character has a background, whether or not it’s ever communicated to the player. Does your protagonist have a troubled home life? Did she grow up with a lot of money? Did your villain face adversity? Where characters come from dictates how they react to a variety of situations.
5. Give them flaws — perfection is boring! Just as no person in the real world is perfect, neither is a believable character. Let him mess up, and use the opportunity to develop his character when he fixes the issue or addresses the conflict.
As game writers, we rejoice in the moments when we’ve become so well-acquainted with a character that they seem to “write themselves.” The next time you realize you can practically hear a character’s voice in your head, take a moment to appreciate the writer(s) who got to know them well enough to bring them to life, whether by page or by screen.
About Brunette Games
Both game industry veterans and talented up-and-comers make up the Brunette Games team. Our founder and CCO is widely regarded as an expert in game storytelling and has been named an influencer by the trade press. Our VP is a legendary brand manager whose IP credits include notables like Dungeons & Dragons and Avalon Hill. Our team of top-notch writer | designers regularly author articles on game storytelling for industry press and deliver presentations at conferences such as GDC, GameDaily Connect, Geekle, and PixelPop.
We’re joined by a roster of actors who voice our scripts, and we serve clients all over the world, from Helsinki to L.A. We write and design for a mainstream, casual player audience across the demographic spectrum. We’ve designed and written 30 released titles in the narrative puzzle and visual novel categories since 2016, including top-performing, genre-defining games Merge Mansion, Matchington Mansion, Lily’s Garden, Sweet Escapes, and many others.