Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Micro Voice

I’ve been floundering a bit, trying to think of what to blog about, partly because my own writing has stuttered to a halting, bumbling stop. It reminds me a lot of when you’re driving along on one of those perfectly nice stretches of highway, then with a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling thud, hit one of those metal grills across the road to keep cattle from crossing? Yeah, that’s the feeling. But it seemed too lame to blog about, and so I was stuck. Then Aspiring Author came to my rescue with a question in the comments. (Which is a good reminder to you all that you should feel free to ask questions in the comments!)

Her question was on voice, which I covered a lot here, but didn’t answer this specific question.

"What ways can you make two characters talk different? I only know one and that's one seldom speaks and uses short sentences and the other doesn't.
do you know any others? "

It’s a good one, and this is where I would instruct you to all pull out you worksheet from a few weeks ago, found here. If you go down this list, you will see that some of these things will affect speech patterns

Part of this is developing an ear for they variations in ways that people speak. A great learning tool is to go to a food court at a local mall and hang out for a couple of hours, paying very close attention to the conversations around you. Some speech patterns will be clear; the way a mother talks differently from her tween girl, the latter’s usually more peppered with slang (and lots of sighs and eye rolling.) The difference between a boy and girl will be marked too, the boy often using fewer words, if not downright monosyllabic, and the girl more chatty. A group of three girls however, might be very, very similar. My guess is if you knew them better, you would be able to pick them out from their speech patterns alone, but not with a casual listen. And this then is the answer, as an author get to know them well enough that you become aware of their speech patterns.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t think about most of this when I write. The speech patterns come from how the character speaks in my mind, and they all speak very differently. For me, writing is sometimes like being an actor, and I jump back and forth between inhabiting the bodies of my characters and speaking their lines.

However, it can still be broken down, dissected, and analyzed.

How much education do they have? Often that will be reflected in their speech patterns, but to different degree. For example, someone who is very conscious of being “college educated” and for whom it is a really big deal, might consciously choose to use complex words and sentence structure in an attempt to be sure everyone knew about his education.

Gender differences are also present. In her work, You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen talks about this very thing; women see language as a way to connect, whereas men are more about stating things baldly. Women will sometimes end their sentences with a question mark as a means of not wanting to appear too aggressive, whereas men rarely do.

Sometimes the difference in speech patterns are easy, Theodosia, a girl from the upper classes of Edwardian Britain speaks much differently than Will, the street urchin. The differences between Theo and Grandmother Throckmorton are more subtle, but still there. Grandmother is very stiff and proper, but also she is often saying critical things. And she sniffs a lot.

In Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist, there are some very clear differences between Phil Fludd, the world’s last remaining Beastologist, and young Nate. One’s in their late forties and knowledgeable, educated, world traveled, and trying to reassure and teach Nate. Whereas Nate is a bit timid and uncertain, so it comes through in how he speaks, tending to ask questions, lots of hesitation, and backing into things he isn’t sure about. Cornelius, on the other hand, is very full of himself and over impressed with the Fludd’s and his own status, so speaks in a very stuffy sort of tone.

When all other ways fail to create differences in the way your characters talk, consider assigning them all some speech tics and unique word choices. Some people’s speech is more filled with hyperbole, and others with more exclamations or expletives. Other’s speak an a very inclusive manner, wanting to cover all the options and be sure to leave no one out or offend anyone, while others just spit out whatever is on the tip of their tongue, (and often have to apologize for it.)

Develop tic words for them, what is their favorite slang? Swear word? The expression they use when angry, frustrated, sad?

Some use short, to the point sentences, others more flowing or complex sentences.
Simple words versus more evocative words.
Simple sentence structure versus more complex clauses and phrasing.

Some people use lots of adverbs and adjectives and others don’t. Some split their infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. Others don’t. And some people begin their sentences with conjunctions. Not to mention sentence fragments.

Some people are challenging when they speak: “Really? Is that what you think?” And others more placating, “I can certainly see why you might think that, but I’ve found…”

Sometimes characters might be cryptic, Awi Bubu, a character in the upcoming Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, is very cryptic, and a foreigner to boot, so his speech is a little formal, his syntax a little off, and full of riddles and half answers.

An engineer with a love of precision and clarity will speak differently than an English literature major.

The metaphors they use, the clichés they favor, the analogies they make. All those will flavor their speech patterns.

If they are a pessimist, they will address everything with Eyeore-like glumness, if optimistic, with a more Pooh-like look on the bright side approach.

Also, don't forget if you want to be entered in this months contest for a copy of Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, today's the last day to leave a comment and be eligible!


Aspiring Author said...

Wow! thanks for making my comment into a post!
And thanks lots for the great advice. You have no idea how much it helped.
Thanks again!

Barbara Bietz said...


Thanks for the great tools to help make a voice distinctive.

Happy Writing,

Barbara B