In today’s post, we’re not talking about a writer’s voice, or style. We’re talking about the actual voice your characters use in their dialogue or monologues, and character monotones is a chronic problem I see in many of the manuscripts I edit. As the author, you might not realize this is a difficulty in your own writing, but I think once you read this post and the accompanying links, you’ll begin to see what I mean.
Character voice does not mean writing dialect or phonetic accents. This is dialect:
“How do you make out?”
“How me mek out?” He pointed upwards to the black rafters of the kitchen. “Tatta Fadda a mek Provide-ance. He-self a gi’e me nyam.”
(From Black Talk: Being Notes On Negro Dialect In British Guiana With (Inevitably) A Chapter On The Vernacular Of Barbados, by J. Graham Cruickshank, Demerara: “The Argosy” Company, Limited, © 1916 [https://archive.org/stream/blacktalkbeingno00cruiuoft/blacktalkbeingno00cruiuoft_djvu.txt].)
No, we’re not talking about that. Character voice is much more subtle than that example—which hits you over the head like a hammer and is difficult to read. A fiction writer has to be able to “inhabit” each character in order to give each his/her own idiosyncratic voice, based on their age, socioeconomic level, location, background, education, experience, etc. It takes a good ear to hear the music of individual voices—to discern and be able to reproduce “on paper” the way individual people speak. Actors have the luxury of using their voices to imitate speech, but all authors have is their words. Does this make it impossible? By no means.
I’ve read articles about differentiating character voice and some have talked about deliberately implementing traits of speech. For instance, Fred always speaks in short, clipped sentences, giving just the answers to questions and nothing else. Ethel speaks in long, flowery sentences. Colonel Rock tends to ramble and needs to be either ignored or interrupted by his superiors. Mr. Paul ends his sentences with “eh?” Shyla calls everybody “darlin’”. Cookie rattles on non-stop with no “punctuation.” Mickey speaks without thinking, and puts his foot in it every time.
Discovering a character’s style of speech can be just as important as deciding what color hair they have or what their occupation is. If you keep a written (or electronic) record of your characters, listing all their quirks and tendencies, then speech traits are definitely something to add. A person’s voice is like their fingerprints. But be subtle and don’t overdo the technique.
You also need to consider the relationship between characters when writing dialogue. Two lifelong pals, or a married couple, will speak in short, familiar sentence fragments to each other because of the years of understanding between them. Introduce a stranger into the scene and the dialogue might become more formal, the words more politically correct, grammar might improve, etc. Sometimes people speak and behave dramatically different depending on circumstances. Use identifying phrases, commonly used words, or distinctive pronunciations (in moderation) and slang to help you in making their speech unique.
Children naturally speak differently than adults. They use shorter words, perhaps more slang, and would be more apt to use words incorrectly. A 30-year veteran of the Army would speak differently than a 30-year housewife veteran of the kitchen. A professor speaks differently than a car mechanic. Do you see how this applies to your book?
One exercise that can help you with this is to pick one scene from your book and write it from the viewpoint of each character. What would the Army veteran notice and comment on? The car mechanic? The housewife? An upscale lawyer? A cranky teenager? They would all be slightly different in their viewpoints and how they would describe events and items.
These are the two best blog posts I’ve saved on the topic. I frequently send copies of these blogs out with my edits when this is a problem: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/12/common-mistakes-one-symptom-weak-character-voice.html and http://io9.com/5379280/all-your-characters-talk-the-same–and-theyre-not-a-hivemind. Don’t neglect reading the comments on both articles, because there are some good suggestions in there, too!
Now, all this isn’t to say that a character can’t have an accent or a dialect that you can bring out subtly. Just be sure to soft pedal it, instead of hitting your reader over the head. If you’ve mentioned that a certain character has a French accent, there’s nothing wrong with using the occasional “ze” instead of “the;” note that I said *occasional.* Don’t rely on misspellings or incomplete words, but focus on the rhythm and cadences of their speech. Find one, maybe two words that demonstrate the accent and use them, but leave the rest to the imagination.
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing