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On Character Voice

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Jun 22, 2020.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I've just finished working up a bit on voice in my WIP and thought I'd check in with my peers on this. Note I'm not talking about authorial voice here, but the manner of speaking for individual characters.

    This is a chicken-and-egg thing that has bedeviled just about every novel I've written, but I'll stick with the current one. I have three main characters--the protagonist, the antagonist, and the villain. Each needs to speak in a distinctive way. Sure, that's obvious, but how does one get there?

    The only way I know is to have them start to speak. Even when I know in a general way--this one's blunt, that one's sophisticated--there's the matter of how to do that specifically. Verbal tics. Mannerisms. So I start to write scenes.

    This inevitably propels the story forward and the next thing you know I have several scenes and thousands of words and plenty of inconsistency. Sometimes it's not until well into the novel before I really settle on a character's voice.

    By which time boy howdy do I have some editing to do. I've tried writing side-bits, specifcally to work on voice, but often it feels too much like a school exercise (with due apologies to teachers). I'm not well motivated, though I do try. I think it's because I need to hear the character speak within the actual story, inside scenes that actually mean something.

    Anyway, I find that smoothing out character voice is one of the more difficult editing tasks. And it's one that an outside editor (the one's I've used, anyway) doesn't often do a good job with. I think it's because they don't know my characters as well as I.

    How goes it with you? How do you develop and manage character voice?
    Night Gardener likes this.
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I find the voice comes with how well I know the characters. With some characters, I figure out most of who they are early or before I start writing, which means their voice comes to me early, and I'm able to carry it through the whole story. Other times, if I'm finding bits of the character as I go, it can take some time before I settle into who the character is and their voice.

    Even when I do know the character, I can sometimes slip out of their voice if I'm really focused on other things like plot, and getting that laid out properly. I find the best way to handle consistency is do an editing pass for each character, focusing on their voice and no other.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  3. nck

    nck Scribe

    This is definitely something that I can only get perfectly right by reverse-engineering things in later drafts, like you describe, though to a certain extent writing dialogue in relatively distinct/characterful voices is something that comes naturally to me (I've spent a lot more time working on stage and screen plays than I have writing prose).
  4. Nigel

    Nigel Acolyte

    I find my character’s personalities develop and can surprise me as I write. Sometimes I just write the dialogue (which normally requires many revisions) and try to picture in my mind how it sounds.
    Then I settle on the voice that feels right. So, for some characters it’s plot, personality, motive.
    Also, my choice is influenced by the physical aspect of the character.
    In summary, three written and unpublished books in, I am learning by trial and error and the hard way I think!
  5. I won't do it with every character or in every story but I try to give at least one character a distinct bit of phrasing that will come back again and again. Here I think of how Matthew, in Anne of Green Gables, starts many sentences with, "Well now. . . " and, of course, how Anne herself is easy to pick out of a dialogue crowd on an page using certain turns of phrase again and again.

    These often come and develop through later drafts though.

    I have a character based on someone I knew in real life who was Flemish, carried an accent despite living most all of his life in the states, and began every other sentence or remark with a quick, curt and sometimes dismissive, "Yah." It was often a sign of agreement but also just a vocal tic that in my way of understanding it, was a way of saying,"I hear you, now here's my take,". . . and he ALWAYS had a take which was set against the fact he was quite the BSer. lol

    Or my own grandmother who, whenever she was discussing future plans, would end her proposed idea/plan with the phrase, "if we live." So, she'd say, "Honey, Saturday we'll go to the park and take a picnic, if we live." There was no pause, no dramatic or ominous delivery. It was as matter of fact as anything could be. Now, she came from a LARGE extended family but I never head any of my great aunts or uncles use this phrase. And coupled with the internal voice in my young head that was always trying to understand why we wouldn't live until the weekend, that internal response to another character not only makes for a good internal character voice too but allows the reader to flesh out the speaking character's tone.

    I am always trying to get not only those small, individual aspects of a character voice in, but also to allow the narrator and/or internal character thoughts to flesh out how others respond and I think that's necessary given that readers aren't always the best at filling in that information for themselves. I often think it's important to make your main character's first interaction in dialogue happen with a contrasting character to allow the reader to recognize and distinguish that MC's voice.

    So I think of Kell, the MC in Darker Shade of Magic who's first interaction is with a mad king. There is nothing distinct about Kell's voice really but when it is set against the ramblings of a mad king, we are able to read into his compassion, softness and more just from the way he interacts as much as his speech. That's important in helping a reader make those decisions too. I read Kell's voice a certain way after wards because of that interaction.

    I imagine this is why we see so many similar side and supporting characters who are toned down shades of the Dickensian type. The one who speaks certain phrases in their native tongue. One who is well versed and educated. Or the street urchin, the disgruntled complainer, the proper figurehead of church, state, tribe.

    Simple phrases help too: If the character refers to her children, not by name, but as "daughter" or "son", we know who is speaking. If the commander uses Lieutenant or Corporal, we know who is speaking. Or the character who never lets anyone else get a word in and ends up running monologue. etc etc,

    I often make these adjustments late too. I have a party story with four main characters and, through the edits and rewriting, one became more cynical, one less sure of herself, one spoke less, relied on gestures and nods etc and spoke with clipped, shorter phrasing. Only my protagonist became more outspoken and more prominent to set him against the others more clearly.

    Most of all. . . HAVE FUN WITH IT!! :)

    Best of luck!
    Night Gardener likes this.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Great post, Maker. I like the examples. It's good to hear that other folks, too, have develop character voices organically (a word that, for writers, means slowly and painfully).

    For those who have worked with an editor, have you found your editor helps on this point? Cuz mine haven't.
  7. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    I must be lucky in that I don't (think I have) a problem with this. I'm always in the head of whoever is speaking so I know everything about them - motivations, secrets, strategies, style etc - at the time of writing.

    Mind you, when planning my first completed novel, I wrote short essays on every main character - maybe 10 essays - and that really helped me get into their heads.

    Ever since, I seem to go there pretty easily, but I can definitely see why it would bug you.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    This is a brilliant idea. Love it!

    We tend to roleplay scenes and character development, so by the time I hit the keyboard I have everyone in my head, sounding as they should. But there are three of us, so I guess that's cheating. :D
    Night Gardener likes this.
  9. StrawhatOverlord

    StrawhatOverlord Scribe

    I tend to have a pretty good idea, or at least a strong impression, of who my characters are before I start writing, so I don't find it that hard. That said I do go back and give it a once over when I finish a conversation or the like, to make sure it checks out and really seems like how that exchange would go in-character. Probably also helps that they're quite distinct from each other.
  10. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    Speaking isn't just with the mouth and words. It's also body language, physiological responses, and is a reflection of the (character's) subconscious mind and mood.

    In RL we speak volumes to one another without uttering a single word.

    That's not the easiest thing to get easily translated well onto the page for a reader to understand or interpret, but it is something I keep in mind well before writing any character-crafted dialogue.

    A dossier on each major character, or an essay, is immensely helpful. What aspect of their personality governs their choice of words, and how does that governance change, based on their moods or the situation? There are so many nuances I can try to articulate as the author. I try to understand what a character is thinking or feeling, how they are processing the thoughts into words as they are saying them aloud to be heard, and why those words. Are they saying something without saying 'it' directly? (Speaking in euphemisms, metaphors, innuendo, refinement?) Are they angry? Laughing? Worried? Calculating and weighing each word before saying them? Panicked? Rushed? How well are they actually listening before speaking?

    So much of that "why" is personality and contextually dependent. And 'consistency' of a person’s speech patterns is a funny thing to try and quantify. I know I do not speak the same when in a professional situation vs. when I am not... That is also something I try to utilize when I write, because if you really listen to people speaking, you hear how etiquette, the social context, and personality transmutes into words and speech patterns. Speech and word choice is quite mercurial. We modulate and moderate our speech depending on who we're talking to (or who might be listening) all the time IRL...

    There are other factors that can be considered when dialogue-smithing, like regionalism, education, social status, etc. And Dickensian stereotyping for authors is effective for a reason: in RL we remember how people speak when they are in our occassional periphery or brief acquaintance. It leaves an impression, like sight, smell, and maybe touch. (We usually don't go around tasting people, so that sensory cue is left out for the most part.)

    We are also self-conscious creatures, and know that people are going to remember how we sound and what we say, so we try to make an/the impression of our choosing. That's why people usually don't swear like sailors and tell explicit jokes in toy stores...or, will reherse a speech for public speaking events. It's not just social ettiquette, it's self-consciously modifying your behavior, projecting your 'best' self. Or not... Will your vocabulary and other word / speech choices change from speaking with your professional colleagues vs. pubmates vs. kids at the playground? I'm willing to say yes, probably.

    And there is something physical, viseral...evocative to subjectively experiencing the voices and words of others that I find gets ommitted in a lot of prose: A lover suddenly whispering near your ear in a dark bedroom is not the same experience as a stranger suddenly whispering near your ear in a dark alley. Even if it turns out that it is the exact same sentence spoken and revealed to be the same character whispering, it probably won't elicit the same reactions in the character being whispered to (or the reader). Situational Context can change words and their meaning. A character so inclined can choose to play on subtext, this knowledge, as much as I can write it.

    From a 'how do I manage dialogue organically' for each major character standpoint after the dossier: I start with outlines closer to screenplays, and write in some pretty genetic (and truthfully) non-committal placeholder dialogue, just to get the ball rolling and to hone my ideas for the scene. Then I try to re-edit as I write, chapter by chapter, for 'in chapter' character consistency.

    Through their character arc by the end of the book, I may have them speaking differently than at the beginning, to help reflect changes that have occurred. And I try not to go too crazy for the first few rounds of editing, adjusting non-dialogue wordsmithing to better accentuate what is being spoken. For example, eloquence and refinery usually flies out the window in a heated arguement... so, how would an eloquent refined character handle a heated argument? If they start swearing, or using stoccatic, terse replies... it could let the other characters (and reader) know that their composure is truly breaking. Do they stop caring that they're arguing in a grand reception hall and their voice will be heard throughout the entire castle? Maybe through windows..out into the bailey...

    There's also the fun interplay between what a reader interprets a character to say/ mean, and how other characters interpret the same information the reader has.

    The most helpful thing I've found when I'm having doubts, is just to read the dialogue I'm writing outloud after (or during) my writing it. Usually at first go, it's just to make sure they aren't accidentally "winded" sentences. Then again at the pace and in the tone / context that I am trying to convey. Not as far as acting it out (usually), but hearing the character's speaking cadence, intonation, and other written cues, etc. aloud is suprisingly informative.

    It's subtle, for sure, but in my mind there is a huge difference in whether a character says something under their breath with a groan vs. saying something clearly, then releasing an exasperated sigh. And that also depends on who is doing the speaking.

    I think that establishing 'speech patterns' for Major characters as part of their dossier is helpful, especially if you plan a noticeable transformation by mood, situation, or arc.

    The best example I can think of is Data from Star Trek never using contractions in his speech. Maybe your character never swears, or uses full honorifics or titles (mistress vs. miss, etc...) Or, they get tongue-tied and rather than speak, go suspiciously quiet around certain characters.

    Speech patterns, diction, vocabulary, etc. don't necessarily have to be stereotypically Dickensian to be memorable and intrinsic to a character on the page. If you want to really fine tune dialogue, listen to people speaking. We take some liberties as authors, but spoken words are truly insightful instruments we can use to express and explore the inner-workings and psyche of characters. We just have to dial-in to that inner-world and translate it to read well on the page.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.

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