Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.21: Casting Your Story With Character Voice

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Zoraida CordovaKaela Rivera, and Howard Tayler

Every member of your ensemble has a reason to be there, but they also have their own voice. Zoraida Cordova joins us for a discussion of how we make our ensemble characters distinct from one another.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

 have each of your ensemble characters describe themselves. Second: have each of your ensemble characters describe each of the others.

Thing of the week: Shafter’s Shifters & the Chassis of Chance (advance reader copy), by Howard Tayler, via the $5 tier of the Schlock Mercenary Patreon

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How can you start making your ensemble cast members unique, interesting, distinct? Well, start with the protagonist protagonist, and how the other characters interact with them. Look at shared and individual goals or motivation. Sitcoms highlight the differences between characters. Make sure the right person has the right lines. How do you make characters distinct? A catchphrase! Physical features, way of talking, or even a distinct problem.

[Season 17, Episode 21]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Casting Your Story With Character Voice.

[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.

[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] Brains!

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Howard] I’m obviously the zombie.


[Dan] That’s what’s left of Howard.

[Dan] So, this week, we’re talking about Casting Your Story With Character Voice. You’ve got a bit ensemble cast. How do you make every member of that ensemble unique and interesting? Zoraida, where do you start with this?

[Zoraida] I usually start… I… As I talked about in a previous episode, I start with the protagonist protagonist. Then I make sort of this spiderweb of how the other characters interact with them. I think about who they are as people, making sure that every single character wants their own thing that is separate from the protagonist protagonist. So everybody has a shared goal and individual goals. I start there. What they want usually tells me who they are as a person, what they’re willing to do to get the thing that they want, and making sure that they have very distinct personalities.

[Dan] Yeah. I… Motivation is such a great place to start with this. It’s something that you can see a lot in role-playing games, if you’ve ever played D&D or any of the other role-playing games. That’s a slightly different situation, because in that case, each character is being run by a player, and that player likely thinks of themselves as the main character of the story. They have specific things that they want, specific goals that each individual is trying to achieve. They all come across then as fairly vibrant. They’re not… I shouldn’t say it never happens, because there’s always one player whose content to just sit in the background and happy to be included. But…


[Dan] Yeah, making sure that they each have their own goal, that they are really trying to do something that is different from what everyone else is interested in. Even though they do all have that shared goal of destroying the Death Star or whatever it is they’re trying to do.

[Howard] Tricks of characterization and motivation in a tabletop role-playing game is even more complicated than that. Because you have a group of five people, all of which have gotten together in order to play a game. But why? Is it because I wanted to spend time with my friends? Is it because I wanted to escape? Do I just want to smash monsters and roll dice? What do I personally want from this? I’m just here for the pizza. I’m probably the GM. I’m working way too hard for pizza, but that’s the only reason I’m here.


[Howard] Then you layer on top of that all of the character motivations. Boy, howdy, does that get complex. It’s one of the reasons why studying what is happening at a tabletop when you’re participating is such a great way to begin wrapping your head around how you might make members of an ensemble distinct in your book.

[Dan] Um…

[Kaela] Yeah, and…

[Dan] Nope, go for it.

[Kaela] Okay. I was going to say, something you hit on earlier, Dan, about, like, each character kind of being their own main character. In their heads, they’re their own main character. I think that’s one of the things that ensembles really excel at. It’s one of the things that… That’s why I want to watch an ensemble, or read an ensemble, or things like that, is because each character has their own strong motivation. They have the reason that they came, whether it’s pizza or it’s rolling the dice or intense wish fulfillment, whatever it is that their goal is. It’s like that’s the thing that compels me to like the characters. When I’m writing characters like that, I think I pull from… Like the… I’m a kind of a hoarder in real life. I mean, not like concerning, I’m not going to be on a reality show for it, but…

[Zoraida] Will they find 17 cats underneath your pile of [garbled]

[Kaela] Yeah. I’m like, go look at them. I have five more, but it’s not a problem. But I kind of do that with creative stuff, like I hoard things in the back of my head. I hoard stuff that I like. Where I’m like, I love the character of, like, the super cool guy who’s like, “Oh, I don’t have any feelings.” But then you find him petting cats and cooking food for his mom. You’re like, “Adorable.” Things like that. You just grab… Just, like, hold all of those… Hoard all of those together. Then you start plugging them into different characters to make them distinct, like Zoraida said.

[Zoraida] I spend a lot of time thinking about voice. Usually before I write, like, I’m… I want to say I’m an ideator as opposed to a procrastinator because, like, I spend…


[Zoraida] A lot of time doing the nonphysical part of writing and just thinking about… Just thinking, like, well, what does this character… I would they sound like? I was walking down the street, like, thinking in my characters head, like, and then just, like, laughing. But it’s sort of… It makes me think of something that’s not book related, which is the TV show Friends. Right? There’s that story where if your friend’s Stan or Stan, you know that… Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston originally auditioned for the opposite characters. So, like, Courtney Cox auditioned for Rachel, and Jennifer Aniston for Monica. Then they switched them. So I just think about how different those characters would be with the different voices, with each actress’s voice. I feel like the same thing applies to your own characters. They have… Like, their singular voice makes them who they are, right? Say, on Friends, Joey doesn’t share food. What are these taglines that they might have? What are this thing that only this person can say and get away with? That’s a thing that really… The dynamics really come out.

[Dan] I think it’s really interesting that we’re talking so much about sitcoms as we go through these episodes. It’s because these are very overtly ensemble stories. Often, one of the things that they are able to do really effectively is tell stories specifically designed to highlight the differences between the characters. Community does this all the time. Great example, they had a Christmas episode. Every member of that cast is a different religion and different background. So they all interacted with Christmas in different ways. There was a Seinfeld episode where… That’s set in a movie theater… Where the four main characters were just trying to find each other. Then you got to hear them like describe each other to the ushers and things. Like, have you seen this person? They look like this. Hearing them describe what the other people look like just became really fascinating. So that kind of… This ensemble story is a really great way to tell those kinds of stories, is here is a central issue. How is each person going to bounce off of it in a different way?

[Howard] Years and years ago, we did an episode of Writing Excuses where we talked about a writing principle. I don’t remember what book it’s from, which is, focusing on the character who is in the most pain as a way to pick the most interesting POV. In writing Schlock Mercenary, which has a huge cast of characters, and members of that cast rotate book for book, rotate into and back out of the ensemble, I found that in the outlining, in the construction of the stories, I had to be careful that the most interesting POV, the most painful POV, wasn’t someone who wasn’t part of the ensemble in this book. Because if I switched away and did something really interesting with somebody who was just on the side, I was kind of throwing away a good characterization moment. Similarly, if I had a really, really good joke I wanted to tell, because it was wordsmithed well, I couldn’t give it to one of the characters who didn’t speak wordsmithy. I had to give it to somebody who had the vocabulary to deliver it. Often, with jokes like that, with plot moments like that, I had to bend the plot in ways to make sure that the right person was on stage in the right mood, in the right place, in the right mindset, to deliver this great line of dialogue… The lines were not actually that great.


[Howard] But [garbled] to deliver this great line of dialogue, because if I deliver it with the wrong character, it knocks people out of the story. Because if done voice characterization correctly, something that… A fantastic line of dialogue that’s out of character for someone will knock the reader out of the story, and that’s not what you want to have happen. That’s the opposite of what you want to have happen.

[Dan] Hey, so let’s follow on this same line of thought. Howard, you are also our book of the week this week.

[Howard] I am. Right now, we are running the beta read of Shafter’s Shifters and the Chassis of Chance over at the Schlock Mercenary Patreon. It is a cozy murder mystery science fiction comedy. It is… I have bent a lot of rules in order to get all of those genres in one place. What’s fun about it is that it is a single person… It’s a first person POV. But I had to make sure that every member of the ensemble sounded different. So the way in which this character describes what the members of the ensemble are doing had to be distinct. If you want to read it, you can join the Patreon at the five dollar level and we have been dropping a chapter a week through the month of May. The month of May will give you the whole novella. You will get this before anybody else does. Based on feedback from beta readers, I will then make it good enough to be a commercial product.


[Zoraida] That sounds excellent.

[Kaela] Yes.

[Dan] I like how you just said read this thing before it’s good and still made it sound really appealing…


[Dan] So…

[Howard] One of…

[Dan] Well done.

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve learned in writing comics, in writing a web comic, I did not have the luxury of writing all the way to the end and then going back and finishing things. Every installment of Schlock Mercenary had to be publishable because it was going up on the web. The… It was… It was kind of a running gag here on Writing Excuses. You guys would talk about going back and revising something so that it works. I would quote the old Monty Python sketch and say, “Luxury!”


[Howard] The… But with Shafter’s Shifters, that same mode of writing… I’ve made four passes through the whole manuscript already. So you’re not alpha reading. You’d be beta reading. I think you’re going to love it.

[Dan] Awesome. All right. Before the book of the week, Kaela, you were about to say something.

[Kaela] Oh, yeah. I was just going to say that one of my favorite things, like what Howard was talking about, was, like, you have to change things according to who’s talking. That can be from high level down to like really minute line level editing. There have been so many times where I have written down… I’m like grocery shopping or I’m waiting in the airport or whatever, and I’m like, “Ooh! Perfect line I need to use in my book. Oh, that’s great.” I’m currently drafting the third book in my series, so that’s really top of mind right now, and I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I write that down. Then, when I’m actually in the document trying to fit it in, I’m like, “Ryan would never say that. Man.” Or this character would never say it like that. That’s way too poetic for them. Then I have to rewrite it several times in order to get it into their voice. Or give it to another character. But I always end up changing, because I think that just speaks to how distinct character voice and how essential it is to the ensemble cast.

[Dan] Definitely. So, that’s a good thing. Let’s talk a little bit about this then. It’s not just making your characters unique, but making them identifiable. Kaela and Howard have said that they come up with a good line of dialogue that has to be from a certain character or can’t be from a different character. That comes from really strong solid characterization. How do you achieve that? How do you make your characters so distinct that dialogue can only be from that one person and wouldn’t sound right with anybody else?

[Howard] That… You used two different words here. You used unique and distinct. If you have a pair of characters who are identical twins, they don’t look unique. They don’t pass the silhouette test when they’re standing next to one another. But we still need to tell them apart. They still need to be distinct. That’s why I use… That’s why I try and use the word distinct. All I need is for the reader to be able to tell them apart. Some of the tools that I use are, if any of you have seen Free Guy… A catchphrase!


[Howard] [garbled] here. I have things that only they will say, and that they can almost be expected to say in certain circumstances. So by the time you get to the end of the story, when someone says catchphrase, you know exactly who it is. I don’t need a dialogue tag to prove it.

[Zoraida] Right. Right. Absolutely. I actually… I really love that, because sometimes it’s frustrating reading something where you can’t tell characters apart or if you look at [garbled] and it’s like… It’s a handsome brunette man. Right? Like, what makes this handsome brunette man unique? And distinct? The distinction is the very thing. I feel like the thing that goes into that is the personal touch. Right? If I’m… I’ve had, like, readers come up to me and say, like, “I recognize you because of your jean jacket with, like, XYZ buttons.” Right? They’ve identified me because of this thing that I was wearing. Right? Like, if you look at all the Avengers, obviously they all have different uniforms. So I think that everything from [garbled] dialogue goes into that as well.

[Kaela] Yes.

[Dan] I’m… Go ahead, Kaela.

[Kaela] I was going to say, like, I love that we’re using the, like, outer equivalent of, like, distinction to represent also the inner equivalent of distinction. So, I love anime, again, cartoons. One of my big beefs with anime, though, is that, like, when you create a bunch of characters who have so many cool little things that they’re wearing…


[Kaela] That it all becomes meaningless. I mean, like, literally, it’s like everything and the kitchen sink outfit. I am like everyone has weird hair here, so it’s not actually distinct anymore.


[Kaela] Like, I’m watching everyone…

[Zoraida] [garbled]

[Kaela] Yeah, I’m like everyone’s a UVO protagonist, no one’s a UVO protagonist now. But, one of my favorite things is to, like, in the books that I write, because, again, anime. I love anime. I love to give characters a very distinct physical feature, so that the moment you see that, when you’re glancing down the book, you know who’s there. But, also a really distinct way of talking or a distinct problem, that whenever you see somebody is facing that, that’s their inner distinction. So you’re like, “Oh, if Ryan is in this scene, I know he’s going to be angry most of the time.” That’s his thing, he’s the angry one. Now, of course, that goes deeper. We’ll talk more about avoiding flat characters later. But I think that adding a distinction that is recognizable… Like, when you get lost as a kid in the store, and you’re looking for your mom’s pink coat. Like, you don’t want to have too many pink coats around, or else you have the terror of grabbing some lady’s hand and looking up and it’s not your mom.

[Zoraida] That happened to me once.

[Kaela] And it’s a terrifying woman.


[Zoraida] That happened to me once when I was a kid at the supermarket.

[Kaela] You don’t want to do that to your readers, right?

[Zoraida] It was the 90s. Everyone had jean jacket skirts.

[Dan] Okay. So, last week, Howard had the very unpopular opinion. I think that it’s my turn, because a really beautiful example of this comes from the Netflix Marvel shows. Particularly Iron Fist. Iron Fist was awful and everyone hated it. But…


[Zoraida] But you?

[Dan] Once he was part of the Defenders, you could… He worked. He was still not necessarily likable, but you put him next to Daredevil, who was grim and competent, Luke Cage, who was grim and competent, Jessica Jones, who was grim and competent, and then Iron Fist got to be this kind of arrogant hothead who was eager to jump into fights he couldn’t win and things like that. He didn’t work necessarily on his own, but in the ensemble, he absolutely filled a vital niche that kind of rounded out the group as a whole.

[Howard] I think one of the reasons he worked is because the other characters all got to say what all of us had been thinking during his Iron Fist season.


[Howard] Especially Jessica Jones. Man, her scoring points on him was my favorite jam for a couple of episodes. It was great.


[Dan] Well, it’s not just that it was fun to watch people knock him. But I don’t think Defenders would have been as strong without him. Because he added some really necessary texture and distinctions.

[Dan] Anyway. We’ve let this episode go on really long. So we’re going to end with homework. Howard, you have our homework.

[Howard] I do. We got a glimpse of this when we were talking about that episode of Friends in the movie theater.

[Dan] Seinfeld.

[Howard] Two-part homework. Have each of your ensemble characters describe themselves. How they see themselves. Go ahead and write a mirror scene. Because, heaven knows, you’re not going to be able to put it in a book. Second, have each of your ensemble characters describe each of the others. So, that second part suddenly gets really big. Because, I mean, you know how matrices work. You’ve got four characters, and suddenly, you’re talking about writing 16 things.


[Howard] But, there’s your homework. The point of this is to let you see how voice affects perception, and ultimately, audience perception of this ensemble you’re going to be putting in your story.

[Dan] You are out of excuses. Now go write.