As the article is about eight years old I don't feel too bad about the rehash.
Here ya go:
So I was looking over the posts on the Shocklines message board and ran across one on character voices. It’s always interesting to see what people have to say about that sort of thing, especially because the opinions can range over so large an area, so I read it.
Damnedest thing: the opinions vary even more than I expected them to. How cool is that?
For me at least, a book is all about the characters first and foremost. If I can’t empathize with the characters in a book or at least loathe them for being such completely vile individuals, I can’t really get into the story. It’s like trying out a new recipe for a casserole and leaving out all of the seasonings, if you get my drift.
I’ve said before and will probably say a few thousand times more, that one of the reasons I absolutely love Stephen King’s writing is that he can make me love or hate a character within a few sentences, a paragraph tops. He’s never failed me on that level and to me that’s a mark of excellence. The same stands true for the voices of his characters. They are unique. They might all use certain phrases as a group, but they LIVE for me while I’m reading about them and I can remember the words they spoke long after the book is finished. That, people, is called talent.
There are a lot of writers out there who can make me pause and take note of the sentences they write, the stories they tell, even the rhythm of their word flow. But it’s only a handful that can make me remember the phrases their characters uttered and remember them fondly.
Dialogue is the difference here. All the pretty structure in the world, all the flowing, beautiful prose, means less to me if the characters don’t come alive for me. And I tend to think the best way to make a character come to life is to make them speak and act like living, breathing people. Without that ability, the story falters.
I already bored you with my opinion on body language last month, so this month I’m going to focus on the spoken word, not as it is spoken, but in how it is written. I tend to think it’s an area where a lot of writers could use a little help. That doesn’t mean I’m the one to teach anyone a damned thing, mind you, but once upon a time Joe Nassise asked me if I wanted to try, so here we go.
What is the character’s voice? Simple enough: It’s the voice of the character. For some it’s a slow, measured pace that takes the time to think before responding. For others it’s a hyperactive ramble that encompasses several conversations all at once and never seems to stay focused on any aspect of anything for more than a few seconds. Just like the people around you on almost any given day. I’ll let you in on a secret: Normally I’m thinking about someone I know when a character’s voice comes to me. Not always, but a lot of the time. It’s not conscious. It just happens. I couldn’t put a face with that voice when it comes to me, but looking back on something I wrote, I often realize that character X speaks similarly to that annoying customer who I deal with every other week at my day job in the Wonderful World of Retail. Character Y sounds remarkably like the cashier that worked at the same place as me when I was writing the story. Not exactly the same, but definitely certain similarities in the flow of the speech patterns, or the words used.
I suspect most writers do the same thing to one extent or another, because, at least according to a good number of sources, we always write what we know. But I need to point out something here, just to clarify: I’ve never deliberately taken someone’s voice and used it as a character in a story. It just happens. I don’t outline my novels and short stories, and I don’t borrow from life on a conscious level. I’ve never been that organized, as my wife would probably tell anyone who listened ad nauseum. I’m a mental slob, and the tales I tell probably reflect that to a certain extent. All I can honestly say is that the voices are there when I write and I’m grateful. Most of the reviews of my work credit me with realistic characters and I’m very happy to hear that, because for me, while I’m writing, they are very real, all the way down to the way they talk and the little things they do that mark them as individuals.
So I guess you can call that a trick to try if you’re stuck. Use someone you know and ask yourself how that person would speak. Give it a shot and see if it helps the next time a character’s dialogue doesn’t seem realistic to you.
Here’s another one for you and one that I have seen done poorly on a number of occasions. Don’t be afraid of the occasional sentence fragment. Most people don’t talk in proper grammatical ways. Hell, a good number of people I know seem to find it an effort to do more than grunt out a two word response to a question. At least when they’re dealing with people they know. A lot of what is said is unspoken. People who know each other well often refer to subjects with code names. “Mrs. Smithers gave me a poor grade on my exam today. She wrote a comment regarding my study habits and suggested that I should make more efficient use of my time,” isn’t likely to come out of the mouth of the average sophomore in high school. More likely: “That bitch Smithers gave me a ‘D.’ Said I need to ‘apply myself better.’” The latter might also include a rolling of the eyes, a snort of disgust, or just possibly a worried expression.
Another thing to remember is that character voices should change through the course of a story, with a few exceptions. Why should they change? Because people act differently depending on whom they are reacting with. Show me a teen who talks to his peers the same way he talks to his parents and I’ll show you a freak of nature. That might change over time, granted, but most people are more restrained in how they speak to figures of authority, such as parents, teachers, and employers. The circumstance dictates the speech pattern more often than not, and that’s an important thing to remember when it comes to writing. The same is true when it comes to speaking to someone you are familiar with and someone you’ve never met. Again, there are exceptions, like most of the drinks I’ve had the misfortune to run across, but they should be just that, the exception.
Colloquialism is a part of speech, too. True, we might all be speaking the same language, but the devil hides in the details. A local group of kids talking among themselves might have a dozen different phrases that are unique to their group and based on shared experiences. “Yeah, Jerry pulled a Todd.” I actually heard that phrase at work one day and asked for clarification. Well the kids I asked both went to the same school, and Todd was a mutual acquaintance. Todd, it seems, is rather socially inept and managed to amuse one of the kids at the school by saying something rude just as a teacher walked past. “Pulling a Todd” means just that: To make a socially inexcusable comment in front of an authority figure. Aside from one small group of kids at the local high school that would mean nothing at all. But a good writer can manage to incoorpate a similar comment into the dialogue of a group of kids with only a sentence or two of explanation.
Down here in Georgia, one of the local phrases that has always annoyed the hell out of me is “might-could.” As in, “We might-could go to the Winn Dixie on Market Street. It’s open 24 hours.” Yes, you might go, or you could go, but in this area, you might-could.
People from London, England do not speak the same English as we do in the States. I’ll do you one better: People from Manchester, England do not speak the same English as people from Brooklyn, New York. That’s just a fact, and if you want to make your characters believable, you’d do very well to remember that fact. Now the part that I’ve seen a lot of writers get wrong—and a lot of people on the street, too—an accent does not automatically mean ignorance. It can, certainly, but believe me, just because someone speaks with a twang in their voice, it isn’t proof of an echo between their ears. My mother also had a wonderful saying that I’ve done my best never to forget: “Never make fun of a person with a foreign accent because it often means they know at least one more language than you do.”
The challenge for me is to make the characters believable and simultaneously make it possible to read their words without getting a headache. Spelling everything out phonetically, to make a point about an accent, can be damned annoying if it’s overdone. A little goes a long ways, at least for me. One of my favorite writers ever is H.P. Lovecraft. That man was a powerful writer in his own right, despite deliberate uses of archaic English. But now and then he went just a little overboard on the whole accent thing.
Here’s an example of what I mean, courtesy of the wonderful “A Shadow over Innsmouth.” The character is as Lovecraft described him: “This, of course, must be Zodak Allen, the half-crazed, liquorish nonagenarian whose tales of old Innsmouth and its shadow were so hideous and incredible.” That was our Narrator, a fine, educated lad whose grasp of the English language is exemplary. As for his counterpart…Well, he needed a little help when it came to speaking for comprehension.
“Thar’s whar it all begun – - that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o’ hell – - sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin’-line kin tech. Ol’ Cap’n Obed done it – - him that faound aout more’n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands. “Everybody was in a bad way them days. Trade fallin’ off, mills losin’ business – - even the new ones – - an’ the best of our menfolks kilt aprivateerin’ in the War of 1812 or lost with the Elizy brig an’ the Ranger scow – - both on ‘em Gilman venters. Obed Marsh he had three ships afloat – - brigantine Columby, brig Hefty, an’ barque Sumatry Queen. He was the only one as kep’ on with the East-Injy an’ Pacific trade, though Esdras Martin’s barkentine Malay Bride made a venter as late as twenty-eight. “Never was nobody like Cap’n Obed – - old limb o’ Satan! Heh, heh! I kin mind him a-tellin’ abaout furren parts, an’ callin’ all the folks stupid for goin’ to Christian meetin’ an’ bearin’ their burdns meek an’ lowly. Says they’d orter git better gods like some o’ the folks in the Injies – - gods as ud bring ‘em good fishin’ in return for their sacrifices, an’ ud reely answer folks’s prayers. ‘Matt Eliot his fust mate, talked a lot too, only he was again’ folks’s doin’ any heathen things. Told abaout an island east of Othaheite whar they was a lot o’ stone ruins older’n anybody knew anying abaout, kind o’ like them on Ponape, in the Carolines, but with carven’s of faces that looked like the big statues on Easter Island. Thar was a little volcanic island near thar, too, whar they was other ruins with diff’rent carvin’ – - ruins all wore away like they’d ben under the sea onct, an’ with picters of awful monsters all over ‘em.”
Much as I love the man’s style, this is a perfect example of going too far in my eyes. And yes, I fully expect many people disagree with me on this one. But folks, trying to sound out all of the deliberate misspellings slowed me down a lot and made me lose the pace and rhythm of the story. A sample would have done to show me that the character in question had a thick accent and I would have been able to read in the proper voice without having to lose the story in an effort to comprehend the typed words.
I have the exact same problem with both foreign and made up languages. Some people have difficulty keeping a small army of characters separated properly in their minds, and I have a problem with trying to read sentences in a language that I simply do not comprehend. For me the rule is exactly the same: Sue it sparingly or risk losing my ability to enjoy your story. And please keep in mind that what works for me probably won’t work for you. I speak only of my own experiences and hardly expect you to take anything I write here as gospel. I am infinitely fascinated by new languages. I would love to learn a few of the other languages out there, but if and when I do, I’ll take classes. I just feel no desire to keep flipping back to a collection of words created to add the depth of an imaginary culture.
Reading for recreation is supposed to be just that. I don’t want to contemplate the intricacies of the writer’s abilities to muddy the waters with thick accents and pseudo-tongues that will never take me a single pace further in my life. I have ever felt the sudden compulsion to learn Klingonese or study the various and sundry examples of the different tenses for calling a woman a lady of the evening in a distant land. To me that isn’t learning about the characters anymore than a ten page description of the litter in an alley is going to explain the intricacies of the character or tell me about their socio-economic status any better than saying that Character Z lives on the wrong side of the tracks and now and then deals drugs to make ends meet.
There’s one other brief subject to discuss here. Narrative voice. With the exception of first person accounts, there’s seldom a direct link between the way the characters speak and the narrative voice makes a story flow. With rare exceptions, the narrative voice SHOULD use proper grammar, and less emotion than the average character’s words. Just as the people you create can propel the story forward with their words and their actions, the narrative voice should do the exact same thing and it should be distinguishable from the voices of the characters that populate the tale. Failure in that simple rule often leads to confusion, especially in cases where writers have deliberately broken the rules of grammar to make a point. (It happens a lot more than most people realize, and not just in my writing.)
There, I think that’s enough of a ramble for another month. If it does some good (whether or not you agree with what I’ve suggested) then all the better. Until next time,
James A. Moore