Giving Voice to your Characters

One of the more difficult things for me to do is give my characters their own unique ‘voice’.  I’m not talking dialogue here, at least, not exactly.  It’s more about writing dialogue that lets the reader know who is speaking without having to put in tags to tell them.

Does that make sense?

Let me put it another way… in most dialogue, you get things like ‘Dan said’ or ‘Sally asked’.  But what if you have several characters speaking?  Or maybe you have a long session of dialogue.  Do you really want to write ‘Dan said’ and ‘Sally said’ every time they actually speak?  Not only that, but don’t you want to be able to have something said and have the reader already have an inkling to who is speaking?

Are you starting to see my difficulty yet?

My natural tendency is to have all my characters talk like I do.  That’s what is most natural for me, but maybe it shouldn’t be most natural for the character’s themselves.  After all, levels of education, region where they grew up, culture, social position; these things all play a part in how someone speaks.

In my first story, I had several characters from different backgrounds (including a goddess).  I tried to get the goddess to speak in a more stilted, archaic form of speech.  She was also a bit of a curmudgeon (in human terms) so I made her speech brusque to the point of being rude.  I think I was successful in making her speech pattern unique.  The other two characters… I’m not so sure.

The same is holding true in my current story.  I have three main characters and several supporting ones.  Of the supporting characters, I’ve tried to made the ‘goons’ speech a little low-brow.  For the main characters (sullen boy, rebellious girl and quiet boy) I’m trying really hard to let their personalities shine through by how they talk.  One way I’m doing that is by having the characters say things that are central to their personality.  Another is to limit the amount of time they spend talking (the quiet boy, obviously) and by showing the reactions of the others to what they say.  Only time will tell if Isucceed.

You’ll note, I haven’t even mentioned accents yet.  I have heard (and read) that accents should be avoided.  I would generally agree with this.  I’ve read passages heavy with accents that took me three or four times as long to get through as regular dialogue.

Minister Faust, who I consider to be brilliant at giving each of his characters a unique voice, uses accents quite often.  As much as I can ‘hear’ the characters speaking through his writing, it is a tough read.  I remember reading an entire chapter of ‘Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad’ where the focal character spoke with a faux-Jamaican accent.  The chapter took me the better part of 20-minutes to get through.  I had to sound out every word to get the meaning (they were spelled phonetically).

I think what I’m going to try is read my dialogue to my kids and ask them who is speaking.  If they can figure out the character without too many tags, then I’ll consider it a success.  Having said that, I also don’t want to put too much emphasis on it either.  I think that would detract from the story.

Is this a problem for you too?  How do you overcome it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Personal Update

OK, so I’ve missed another deadline for my Current WIP.  What can I say?  It’s summer.  Still, I managed to rattle off another 4,500 words over the weekend and 1,500 last night.  That puts my total to date at 18,600 (give or take).  The story is almost 2/3 complete and is on track for a June completion.

My daughter was reading over my should Saturday night as I was typing (at a very exciting point in the story, might I add).  She nonchalantly mentioned that she would be happy to act as a first reader for this story.  I think that’s good, isn’t it?

You might say that 30,000 words isn’t really a novel and you’d be partially right.  For Young Readers, 25,000 – 40,000 seems to be the sweet spot for story length.  These are not called novels by the kids, but “Chapter books”.  Either way, since they are the market, I’m writing to them.


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