Our family just got our hands on Tyler Whitesides’ “Janitors: Heroes of the Dustbin”, the last book in his Janitors series, and I’m reading it to my younger two children (my oldest is busy with school, or she’d be listening, too). I’ve read the entire series to them so far, but this time around I’ve noticed something. It’s easy for me to differentiate voices. Besides the obvious (Marv has a deep, husky voice, Daisy is a girl), the speech patterns of many of the characters lend themselves to certain voices. Spencer is a mostly normal kid, and gets a normal voice. Dez is something of a bully, and he talks like it. And I make him sound like it. Other characters quickly suggest to me what their voices should sound like, too.
I’m not sure how Whitesides approaches this in his writing. It would be interesting to ask him: what do your characters sound like in your mind? Or, I suppose, I could get the audio books, as he does the narration for them. But more importantly, I’d ask him how he decides what his characters sound like, and how does he reflect that in their speech patterns so that they “talk differently.”
I’ve noticed in my own novel I’m currently revising that I do on occasion make my characters sound different from other characters. But how did I do that? How can I make sure I manage that with my other characters? It’s not something I have been able to do consistently. But having written another book in which I tried to make my characters different to varying degrees of success, I know what I’d like to try next time. Here are some thoughts, and I hope you’ll suggest some of your own below:
Use celebrities or known characters as models. In my latest novel I have a rival musician with whom my protagonist has a mixed relationship. I like to find pictures of real people to use as my mental image of each character. In this case I chose Kenneth Branagh. It proved a serendipitous choice, because in this case, at least, it influenced his voice. This character’s voice is somewhere between Gildroy Lockhart and Branagh himself. And somehow it does translate to the written dialogue. Unfortunately most of the rest of my “cast” borrow pictures from unknown models and actors, so I have no idea how they would talk.
Build on aspects of your character. Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings” are from different social classes, and it shows in their speech. Frodo is well-spoken, but fairly terse. Sam actually speaks more than Frodo, but much of it is filler speech, serving little purpose, but giving a distinct flow to his dialogue.
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “HMS Pinafore” there are two main characters, the ship’s captain and one of the lowly sailors. The captain is from a higher class family, the sailor from a lower one. And yet the captain’s speech is simple and somewhat crude. And he has trouble with swearing. The sailor, however, is well-spoken and elegant in his speech, constructing complex sentences that would be difficult for most men to utter (I know, as I played that role, and I really had to work hard to make some of his lines sound effortless). It turns out in a twist ending that the two men were in fact born to the other’s families, but were switched at birth. Now this is, of course, comedy, and therefore not entirely a good example, but if there are hidden aspects to your character’s past, consider how that might be reflected in their speech patterns.
Consider verbal ‘tics’. Let’s face it, not everyone speaks smoothly. People stutter. People have pet words they over-use. They have favorite expressions or analogies. They start sentences only to stop and start over, or change direction. They get several ideas at once and trip over their words. They get mentally rattled. Why not mix a few in sparingly and see how it goes? For example:
“Now hang on—I mean—Alright, that’s enough!” Wilmer cried, his face getting red.
“Put this in here, and bob’s your uncle, you’re all set!”
“He’s not necessarily expecting us to just show up and hand over the money, y’know?”
“Now just-just-just sit down a moment, Madam, and tell me all about it. It can’t be that bad!”
Don’t get in a rush. I think one of my biggest obstacles to writing more realistic and character-specific dialogue is my hurry to keep writing. I just want to get the gist of the conversation out, to move things along, to deliver the needed information. Real life conversations don’t always go like that. People interrupt each other or talk over each other. People interject jokes or wisecracks or try to pull the conversation in a direction more favorable to them. Dialogue doesn’t always have to go straight from Point A to Point B. It can take detours to C, D or E along the way, so long as it doesn’t get entirely hijacked and start to bog down the flow of the story. People like to talk, and often use far more words than they need to in conveying their message. Respect that, and don’t get in a hurry to move on.
Read for ideas. Don’t just read, but read specifically for dialogue. Think of a book you believe has good dialogue, good characters, or both. See what different approaches the author uses. Read different books from different eras or settings to see how different classes of people talk, or what differences there might be between eras.
What sort of expressions go with the character? What are your characters around the most? What expressions or phrases would they pick up from their environment? For example, a baker might describe someone’s newborn baby as “about the length of a baguette”, or a butcher might say it weights about as much as a pheasant.
Those are a few ideas I’m considering in my next work. What other suggestions might you add?
Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading.
Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…