The human voice is incredibly versatile. The way we speak says a lot about our physical, mental, and emotional states, and even the slightest change in tone can convey myriad meanings and interpretations.
Some people speak with a loud, booming voice, while other voices are brittle or shrill.
A soft voice is a hushed voice. Raucous voices are loud and grating. Each adjective adds a quality to the speaker that influences our understanding and feelings about them.
This article will explore ways to describe a voice.
Since we cannot hear the sound of a voice in literature, it is the writer’s task to create that quality of sound in the readers’ minds.
Proper use of adjectives and even verbs in dialogue tags help readers hear the characters and allow for greater immersion in the story.
Why is it essential to describe a voice?
As a writer, how you describe a character’s voice, both in general and in a particular moment, helps convey something important to the reader.
It informs the reader about the character’s emotional state, thoughts, or reactions to the environment. It can also offer insight into that character’s personality or background.
As such, it’s crucial to develop a broad vocabulary when describing voices. The more specifically you can define a voice, the more opportunity you have to define the essence of a scene or moment, ultimately engaging your readers and thus making you a better writer.
“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”Anton Chekhov
This quote by Anton Chekhov highlights the importance of a good character description. Sometimes writers get lost in describing a character’s inner world and distract readers from the plot.
A good description of a character’s voice allows writers to portray an entire inner state through a single verb or adjective.
If a character is said to cry during their speech – “I want to go home!” the young boy cried to his mother – then we know how the character feels.
If someone speaks loudly, we know that they believe they have something important to say.
Ways to describe a voice
Describing a character’s voice well is an essential skill in writing characters.
A well-described voice helps the reader develop an image and opinion about a given character. This image/idea/opinion is further supported by other types of character description, such as their posture and stature, fashion style, physical appearance, and personality traits.
Voice adds more complexity to a character description because the voice can change in a second, and even slight changes in the quality or tone of one’s voice can help a writer develop and progress a scene or an intercharacter relationship.
Words to describe tone of voice
Writers often use adjectives to describe the tone or quality of a character’s vice. One can also describe a voice with a verb, where the verb is used in a dialogue tag.
Below you’ll find a list of adjectives writers often use to describe tones of voice. After, we’ll look at common dialogue tags for voice descriptions.
An adenoid/nasal voice sounds as though it comes through the nose as if that’s where the breath tends to go in such a voice.
Typically, a nasal voice sounds annoying, so such voices are attributed to annoying or overbearing characters, like Janice in Friends or Spongebob Squarepants.
A breathy voice sounds as though there is more air than the voice in the person’s speech. A person out of breath from exercise or other physical exertion may sound breathy.
Someone aiming to seduce may also speak in a breathy tone. A writer might use the term breathy to describe who speaks with loud breathing noises.
A brittle voice is weak and quiet, making it sound like the speaker is about to cry.
Someone trying to hold back tears may speak with a brittle voice.
‘His voice was brittle and weak, and everyone knew he was about to cry.’
A croaky voice is broken and weak. If someone’s voice sounds croaky, they may be ill or dehydrated. They may feel emotionally small or insignificant. Nervousness and shyness can result in a croaky voice.
A disembodied voice does not come from a person but from an unknown or invisible source. For example, a character may hear the disembodied voice of a ghost or may be experiencing an auditory hallucination.
If someone’s voice is flat, they keep the same intonation throughout the sentence. Their pitch doesn’t go up or down, and they don’t stress words. A person in shock or particularly sad may speak with a flat voice.
An enthusiastic voice is high in energy and optimistic in attitude. We know that a character who speaks enthusiastically is excited or passionate about something.
An annoying/unpleasant voice often heard by a character who is annoyed themselves.
A gravelly voice sounds low and rough and is typically spoken by older male characters.
A low voice in which sound comes from the back of the throat.
A hoarse voice is a raspy or hoarse voice that may have been caused by excessive shouting, physical exertion, or dehydration.
The honeyed voice sounds sweet, smooth, and pleasant to listen to. A character pretending to be nice may adopt a honeyed tone of voice to deceive another.
The husky voice is often hoarse but controlled, deep and low, and is often considered attractive. Husky voices often find their place in romantic or intimately charged moments or to describe an appealing character.
A modulated voice is calm and controlled. It can contain various pitches and intonation, but these are in complete control of the speaker and are used with intention.
A raucous voice is loud and harsh, pushed or forced rather than smooth or free-flowing. You may hear raucous voices at a loud party.
A shrill voice is high-pitched and unpleasant to listen to. It is piercing and is usually attributed to annoying or antagonistic characters.
A singsong voice is musical. It rises and falls pleasantly and usually conveys a positive, happy, or uplifted state.
A soft-spoken voice is a gentle voice. Soft-spoken voices are usually caring, compassionate, and pleasant to listen to.
A character who cares about another may address them with a soft-spoken voice. Similarly, a quiet and timid character may also be soft-spoken.
Soft-spoken voices sometimes come from soft-spoken characters or can be used to refer to a character in one instance using a very quiet voice.
A stentorian voice sounds loud, booming, and typically authoritative. The term can describe a person or speak in a loud tone. A frustrated teacher may adopt a stentorian voice to bring order to an unruly classroom.
Describing voice with dialogue tags
Some of these adjectives can be used as verbs in a dialogue tag.
A dialogue tag is a part of a sentence that accompanies a piece of dialogue and informs the reader of the speaker and how they spoke. For example: “Are we there yet?” the children cried. ‘Almost there..,’ answered their mother in a honeyed voice.
You can say a character with a croaky voice ‘croaked,’ or a grating voice ‘grated.’
We often use verbs to describe voice when the character’s voice does not always have that quality but has it now in relation to what’s happening in and around them.
For example, if someone croaks with their voice, they may be extremely dehydrated. (‘Water.. water!’ the man croaked.) To use an adjective, we can say that “the dehydrated man’s voice was hoarse.”
The list above is not exhaustive – so you won’t find every possible way to describe a voice here – these are just some examples.
However, try to avoid settling when it comes to describing your characters. If a character has a particular tone of voice, but you don’t know the term to describe it, make an extra effort to find it.
Search similar words you know on Google and look for synonyms. It may only take a minute or two to find the most accurate term, and that search will pay off when your story reaches the reader.
The more you can offer a reader a well-portrayed character or a well-conveyed moment, the better the story is told and the more appreciated you are as a writer.