I have a confession: I don’t like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein very much. Not for the usual reasons one might dislike a piece of work (plot, character, etc.) This is solely because of how she writes from the perspective of different characters. Let me explain.
Frankenstein begins when Robert Walton meets Victor Frankenstein in the arctic. Walton begins the story in first person, which then transitions to Frankenstein’s recounting of creating the monster, which then moves into the Monster’s account of what happened to him after Frankenstein abandoned him. The novel stays in the first person, but the narrator changes. When it does, each narrator sounds exactly like the last one.
This is a common dialogue problem, but it also crops up in any body of work with multiple first person narrators. Because the problem goes dialogue, I tend to categorize this as a problem with characterization. The problem stems for the fact that your characters are too similar.
You might have characters that look different physically, who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who are different ages, different races, etc., but if they all speak in the same manner, make the same observations, well, they will end up blending together, which can take you out of the story. When you think about it, of course they characters sound alike, they were all written by one person.
So, what are some counter-examples?
Cloud Atlas is one of my favorites for multiple perspectives. Not only do the main characters in each section of the novel sound different, the entire piece of work shifts genres so that it feels as though you are putting one story down and picking up something completely unrelated on your bookshelf and so on. It does go a little overboard with this though, as the final story (which is told entirely in the middle section of the book, rather than broken up) reads like A Clockwork Orange. It can be a difficult slog if you’re not prepared for it.
If you’re looking for a three-minute example, check this out. For context, this is a clip from the show Galavant, with songs by Alan Menken (think every Disney movie after 1988.) The character is an unintelligent thug who has fallen in love, trying to express his feelings. And it is hilarious.
It works because that character is so fully-formed that even his love song is reflective of his personality. The better you know your characters and the more work you put into making them individuals the better you’ll be at giving them unique voices. So dig deep and don’t fall into lazy writing patterns.
Got any examples of writers who excel at character’s voices? Read any that were so similar you had to laugh out loud? Leave them in the comments!