By Dame Toni
Note: This is Part 5 of an article I’m writing for eventual cleanup and submission to several magazines. See previous installments on my personal blog, http://toniandrews.bravejournal.com/.
When I first heard the term Character Voice, I immediately thought about dialogue. It made perfect sense to me that each character would have his/her own unique way of speaking, and that each voice would have a identifiable tone, timbre, and accent. I also understood that there were differences based on gender, age, education and social standing. I intuitively figured out that internal dialogue needs to be in the character’s voice as well.
What was less obvious was that, in order to maintain the integrity of a scene’s Point of View (POV), the narrative needs to be in the POV character’s voice as well.
Natural dialogue is all about where the speaker is from, when they were born, how they were raised, who they are and to whom they are speaking.
Where: I was born in Connecticut, but spent significant time in southern California and Miami, Florida before returning to Connecticut a couple of years ago. Although none of these three places is associated with a particularly strong accent, there’s still a huge difference in the way people talk. For example:
- I was at a party in California and we ran out of wine. A guest asked where he could find the nearest package store. No one knew what he was talking about except me, and, after I told him how to find the packy (liquor store), I asked him what part of Connecticut he was from (Norwich, BTW). I also told him to talk to me if he was ever looking for a good grinder shop.
- I was giving someone directions recently, and the guy asked me, “Are you from California?” I had no idea what had given me away. As it happened, I had referred to “84” as “the 84.” In California, you always say “the 405.” In Miami, no one uses the route number at all, even on radio traffic reports. It’s “The Turnpike” or “South Dixie Highway.”
If you’re setting a book in a place where you haven’t spent significant time, try to find a native to take a look at it for you. The internet is wonderful for finding beta readers.
Accents are important, too but, when phonetically spelling out accented speech, less is more. You may want to show that someone has a strong Scottish burr with the first few sentences he utters, or drop the g the first time your southern character goes fishin’, but once your reader has the character’s voice in his or her head, he or she will continue to hear the accent, even if you don’t spell it out. This was mentioned by several of the editors and agents with whom I spoke—they said that continuously spelling out dialogue phonetically took them out of the story and, eventually wore them out. Ever try to read Trainspotting? I rest my case.
When: When a character was born greatly impacts their speech. This is one of the reasons I don’t write historical novels—I am waaaay to lazy to get things like proper forms of address right. I’m currently working on a contemporary novel with characters in their twenties and their forties doing a lot of interacting. The forty-something voices are easy, but I have been doing a lot of eavesdropping in coffee shops lately. I remember when “bad” was good, but it took me a while to catch on that “sick” means “extra-fabulous.” And an entire generation of Americans are incapable of completing a sentence without using the word “like” seven or eight times.
How: Socio-economic factors make a huge difference. I often hear people say that John F. Kennedy had a Boston accent. But if you go to a blue-collar neighborhood on Boston’s south side, you’re going to hear something very different.
Better educated people are likely to have a larger vocabularies.
The most obvious socio-economic factor is gender. Men just don’t talk the same way women do. They use shorter sentences. They use less adjectives. And (refer back to parts 3 and 4 of this article) they just don’t perceive the same kind of detail as women.
I judged a contest entry in which a heterosexual alpha male noticed that a woman was wearing a “peach silk sheath.” I’ll give an example of why this won’t work. I was presenting a workshop and asked the men in the room what I was wearing. After a very long pause, one man raised his hand and ventured that I was wearing a blue dress. Another opined that it was green. I asked them to identify the fabric and they both looked at me like deer caught in headlights.
I then asked the women the same question and they replied, more or less in unison (and correctly) that I was wearing a rayon teal tunic.
I submit that nine out of ten heterosexual men could not identify the color peach or silk fabric, and think a sheath is either something used to hold a hunting knife or a euphemism for condom.
A side note on verbal quirks:
I recently judged a contest entry that included several characters, all of whom were young women living in the same small town in Georgia. Whenever there was a scene with two or more of the women, I had a hard time telling who was who, and had to keep going back and saying, “Now, which one is Charlotte?” They all sounded the same.
In real life, it is natural for people of the same gender and economic group, raised in the same part of the country at about the same time, to sound a lot alike. Unfortunately, it can be confusing in fiction. Verbal quirks are a good way to differentiate.
To Whom: I speak differently to a bartender than I do a policeman who pulls me over. I don’t use profanity in front of small children or elderly people or, for that matter, strangers. Additionally, my language is going to undergo a tremendous transformation between date #1 and date #101. The same is true of your characters.
Internal dialogue is almost exactly like external dialogue, except that the POV character does not have to self-sensor. Men, especially, are likely to avoid saying something that could make them appear to be vulnerable. But they can think it, as long as the language is still their own.
What may be less intuitive to a writer than understanding that dialogue, both spoken and internal, needs to be in the POV character’s voice, is that narrative needs to be in the POV character’s voice as well.
In Men in Chains (which, I swear, I’m not bringing up again just to pimp myself), there’s a character named Grenda. She’s the henchwoman of the evil villainess (this is a gender role reversal book, you’ll recall) and can best be described as a thug. She’s neither well educated nor particularly intelligent, although she can be wily when it serves her.
Grenda has a POV scene in which she’s trying to figure out how to manipulate her much-smarter boss into doing something. If she gets caught, her boss will be angry and Grenda will likely suffer some heinous consequence.
I knew there was something wrong with the scene, which should have been interesting and darkly funny. But it just didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t figure out why.
There was a short, simple line in the scene, around which the action hinged:
“Grenda considered her options.”
What’s wrong with this sentence?
I’ll give you a hint: In the 1978 movie La Cage Aux Folles (remade as The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) there’s a hysterical scene in which “Zaza Napoli,” a middle-aged drag queen, is attempting to masquerade as a heterosexual man—and failing dismally. She doesn’t know how to stand, walk, or move her hands. Her words are too flowery and her voice too shrill. She finally has some success when a friend suggests that she “walk like John Wayne.” Whenever Zaza can’t remember how to do or say something, she imagines that she is John Wayne and, suddenly, she’s a he. Her body language and speech correct themselves.
Back to my sentence. The problem is, it was in my voice, not the POV character’s. Grenda doesn’t use words like “consider” and “options,” especially not when suffering from a crushing hangover, as she was in the scene.
So, to figure out how the scene should work, I decided to walk like John Wayne, or, in this case, like Grenda. I imagined that I was Grenda. I sat like her. I moved like her. I thought like her. Then I rewrote the scene, temporarily, in first person. I wrote something like:
“This crap was giving me a headache. If I could just make her think it was all her idea…”
Now, that sounded like Grenda! After writing the entire scene in Grenda’s words, I changed it back to third person, replacing the pronouns. I now had:
“This crap was giving Grenda a headache. There had to be some way to make Bloduewedd think it was all her idea.”
When I was done, it came to life and I finally had the dark, funny scene I had imagined.
Coming Soon: Showing vs. Telling – Yes, but how does it make you feel?