If I had a nickel for every voice I’ve ever heard in my head, I’d be a millionaire, or on my way to catching up to J.K Rowling’s earnings from Harry Potter. I’m not referring to hearing psychotic voices that strongly urge friends and family members to seek professional help for people in real life; I’m talking about hearing your character’s voice, and your own as a writer.
While all dialogue is created with vocabulary as the common denominator, it is not all created equally. The character that is created with a slur in his speech, the tendency to swear every second word that comes out of her mouth or with a vocabulary that only a dictionary should have: like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, by J.K Rowling, is going to grab readers’ attention more than someone who has no variation in their speech patterns. I’m not talking about consistency in speech, that’s something else and the two should not be confused. It is useful to have variation in your character’s voices, especially if your characters are in a non-fiction piece and all from the same family. It is equally important in writing that all your characters have their own voice.
When reading text, you should be able to discern a character with a Scottish accent, from a character with a say, Arabic accent. This is done through dialect and syntax. Choosing what your character is saying and how they are saying it.
If you don’t know how someone of a different culture speaks, don’t fake the dialogue. Your audience is intelligent and will not be fooled by an author writing a character with a French accent whose English is broken and unintelligible and just comes across as sounding unintelligent.
At the same time, grammar can be a writers’ best friend when creating a characters voice. Inserting apostrophes’ to substitute for sounds in a word that would not usually be omitted. Stephen King, does this in his writing – see how he uses this technique and reflect on the speech patterns of your friends and families when enjoying a great conversation. Or, pick up books by your favourite authors, observe the ways in which they have managed to give their characters a succinct voice of their own.
Does anyone you know use slang a lot? You might give your readers a sense of this speech pattern in one of your characters, but try not to overuse it. Sometimes letting your readers know about your characters tendencies: hobbies, speech or otherwise help to flesh out the character as the writing progresses but following this the whole time becomes redundant.
Try creating characters with speech impediments, Italian or other accents, and see how the vocabulary changes and common idioms enrich the prose. Do your homework first. Great characters need to be believable for your prose to be believable; just my opinion.
Try to employ these techniques in your writing and tell me how it works for you.
I’d.Love.To.See.Your. Prose and the many ways in which you have helped incorporate speech differences and elements of writing to enhance your prose. Your call.
Creating shorter and longer sentences (as seen above) is another way to vary your character’s voice.
Attribution is also an important part of a characters’ voice. Verbs such as screamed, yelled, stuttered and so on should not be necessary to convey to your reader how your character us feeling. Exclamation points are often over-used to convey yelling; but if you’re reading about two characters fighting, the conflict and emotion should speak for itself, without added attribution. There are times however, where the attribution serves as a necessary form of clarification, and that, I refer to as, the writer’s voice. Some authors will prefer many apostrophes to em dashes and so on.
Your characters voice and your voice as a writer, should be clear in your writing.
The voices in my head are calling to me to get them onto paper…I urge you to do the same. Write. No straitjacket required.
*Previously published in The Ink Never Runs Out