Six impossible things

Sounding a Little Different

Apparently there’s some interest in techniques for crowd control, so I’ll address that next post. In this one, I want to continue talking about characters’ voices, and ways of making them different. First, a couple of examples of what I mean by “characters who have radically different conversational styles,” that is, characters who are really easy to tell apart:

“Look, fur-brain, if I knew, would I ask?”

“It would probably be very awkward for you to explain. So many things are; awkward, I mean. Large kettles, for instance, and carrying three brooms at once, and those fat brown birds with the red wings whose name I can’t remember just at present. They waddle.”

“Every man has choices. I have made some few of mine, and now the sands fall to your side of the wheel.”

The differences between the voices above are a combination of the things I talked about last time – word choice, syntax, and grammar – plus personality, background, and sentence length. Character #1 is slangy and abrupt; character #2 is more formal and polite, but rambles off-topic at the drop of a hat; Character #3 is also formal and polite, and comes from a different culture with different idioms than the first two. They’re fairly easy to tell apart, even without speech tags.

Most of the time, though, one has several characters, at least, who come from a similar background – same culture, same village, maybe even from the same family – and who can therefore be expected to have speaking voices that are very similar. They still won’t be completely identical, though, and subtle differences in voice can be a lot more difficult to hear, let alone recreate.

A writer who has a few characters with significantly different backgrounds, plus several characters from the same area, is usually best off starting by deciding on the big differences in speaking style that are based in culture and different backgrounds. Once you have that clear, it is generally easier to take three or four characters from the same town and pick out further modifications.

Some writers try to go straight to the dialog by giving one character a stutter or another a tendency to slur words together (hafta, sorta, woulda). This is nearly always ineffective if it is done this way, for this reason, because at the level of “four characters from the same village need different speech patterns,” the difference in voice grows mainly out of a difference in personality. If you give a character a stutter just to make his dialog different, it won’t work, because having a stutter ought to affect other things about him, from his inclination to communicate in general to his self-image.

Sometimes, though, a character shows up who, well, just has a bad habit. The first rule of thumb is that if you are going to give one of your characters a bad speech habit that requires some kind of phonetic respelling, use a light hand. Phonetic respellings, even ones as innocuous as leaving off an initial “h” or terminal “g” (as in “I ‘ave to be goin’ now.”) can get very, very wearing to read, very quickly. And try very, very hard not to have more than one character per book that uses this kind of dialog. Sometimes, of course, you can’t avoid it; if so, recognize that it will take some extra work to make the dialog flow smoothly and readably, especially when your two characters with the phonetic dialog are talking to each other.

Usually, it is more effective to start with the character’s personality, and figure out from that what they’ll sound like. Writers also need to remember that voice is as much about what gets said, as it is about how things get said. A character who is straightforward and efficient may tend to shorter, crisper sentences, and may also stick closely to the point under discussion; one who is a little insecure may feel a need to contribute to every discussion, and perhaps go on a bit longer in order to provide supporting evidence for their contribution. A different sort of insecurity or shyness may make a character disinclined to talk much at all, or to be very diffident about expressing an opinion. So one has to have some idea what a character is like, but also how “what the character is like” will be expressed for that particular character.

A lot of this gets done by instinct or practice. I find, as with much dialog, that reading really good plays helps. Radio plays are good, too, because there really isn’t anything but dialog and sound effects.

I’ll finish with a pair of examples: a brief conversation between two women having lunch together. They don’t sound radically different, but they’re still distinct:

“This place has good hamburgers.”

“Well, I don’t know if I should have one. I read this thing last week – I forget what magazine it was in, but it was all about how red meat is so bad for you. So I’ve been trying to cut back, at least some.”

“You’re always reading things.” She shook her head. “Have the fish.”

“But isn’t there mercury or lead or something in fish? Something bad for you, anyway. Oh, and it’s breaded and fried, I don’t think I want fish.”

“Well, have a salad, then.”

And here’s the same conversation, only with the voices reversed:

“I just love coming here, they have such good hamburgers. Why don’t you have one?”

“I’m cutting back. Red meat is bad for you.”

She frowned. “Well, they have this really good fish – let me see, where is it? There, halfway down the second page, the batter-fried cod with chips, just like they give you in England.”

“Too much grease. Anyway, fish has mercury in it. I’m not eating fish.”

“I suppose you could always have a salad.”

8 Comments
  1. “Writers also need to remember that voice is as much about what gets said, as it is about how things get said.” <– This. People need to remember this. Also, your last example is perfect!

  2. Oh, that last example is perfect! We know these characters. I want to see how either pair handles something more challenging than ordering lunch.

  3. Yup. Loved the salad example – though I do want to reach out and shake BOTH of those women.

    I hadn’t thought about it, but having any kind of typographical marker IS best done for a single character in a book (Mark Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn in a different worlds) – and I seem to have done that by instinct. I have a single Irish character, and his Irishness is mostly expressed by an occasional different word order – but he gets ye for you every once in a while.

    The other characters get speech patterns – sentence length, vocabulary, use of ‘I’ – to distinguish them. When you get to the point where you can say of a character, ‘she would never say that’ or ‘he wouldn’t say it that way,’ then you know you have a character’s voice (in both senses) firmly in your head.

    It is one of the pleasures of writing to be able to do that – and know that you’re doing it. Readers get to enjoy it, but they don’t get the more intense joy of creating it.

    • As to _Huckleberry Finn_, Twain put in one chapter with walk-on characters speaking *eight* different variants of the local (Missouri and environs) English. He warned the reader about it in a preface, too.

      I wrote a character once whose only mark of coming from a different culture was that he never used contractions.

  4. Character #2 up at the top is probably Amberglas. I don’t recognize the other ones. Do they come from your books too?

    • I’m pretty sure the other two are also from The Seven Towers – #1 is Vandaris and #3 is Ranlyn.

  5. I remember once when I was trying a particular conversation to tell if I could tell which character was which by voice.

    Alas, it was obvious because the two agendas were too sharply clashing.

  6. In order to find character voices, I like to do exercises like what you were doing where you just have a scene with only dialogue. It’s a great way to really practice just doing voices.

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