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Oct
21
2014

Making Your Character Voices Distinctive -- by Suzie Quint

Some time back, Accent Tag vlogs were all the rage on youtube. They're fun to watch, but for writers, they're more than fun. They're a great example of why character voices need to be distinctive, and they're a potential tool to help us figure out how to make our characters sound unique.

This subject has been on my radar for quite a while. There was a time, in my face2face group, when I kept getting this comment from one of the guys: "Your characters all have your speech patterns, your vocabulary. They all sound like you, but they should sound like themselves."  Frankly, I didn't quite know what to do about that. One member of the group suggested that I use more Anglo-Saxon English for one of the characters. This was a real high-end critique group, and I was too embarrassed to admit I had no clue what the difference was between Anglo-Saxon English and regular everyday English. Oh, I knew I could look the etymology up in the dictionary, but the idea of looking up every word I used seemed a little impractical. Then I read Starting From Scratch by Rita Mae Brown. In this book, Ms. Brown not only explains the difference between Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English) and High English (aka Norman English which is rooted deep in the French/Latin languages), she gives a list of examples of which I borrowed a few to list below.

Anglo-Saxon             Norman English

Starting from Scratchwoman                female

happiness            felicity

to give              to present

lonely               solitary

murder/killing       homicide

calf                 veal

sheep                mutton

swine                pork

friendship           amity 

Do you see what I see? This isn't something you have to look up or memorize. You can feel the difference. You know without anyone having to explain it that the rich and cultured employ domestics. The rest of us hire housekeepers.

Word choice as characterization. Remarkably effective.

This was a solid step in the right direction, but it still wasn't enough. I started looking at dialects and speech patterns. And for practice I wrote an urban fantasy that has a leprechaun. I had no trouble giving this character a unique voice because I had spent more than a decade socializing in my local Irish pub. Mind you, this isn't a place where they think having Guinness on tap makes them an Irish pub. This is a place where the proprietor's first language is Gaelic and a core group of regulars were born on the Emerald Isle. I can hear the lilt of their speech in my head. And if I can hear it in my head, I can write dialog that lends itself to the cadence that's uniquely Irish. And sure, wasn't I thinking that'll be enough? So long as the reader hasn't a tin ear, they'll be hearin' that wee, brilliant cadence that make the Irish sound so sweet.

Except, of course, not every character I write has an Irish Brogue. So my next step was to look at other dialects. That's when I found American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers by Lewis Herman & Marguerite Shalett Herman. With this tool in hand, I experimented with writing an East Texas accent and Ozark accent in the same story, paying attention to who used what speech patterns, and I started developing an appreciation for the different impressions the choice one grammatic structure over another can make. In the following videos, listen not just to how they pronounce words, but how they phrase things. Verb phrases are often key, as the one gentleman says "I got to realizing..." That, my friends, is character voice.

From a writer's standpoint, the fascinating thing about this video, made by actress Amy Walker, isn't just the different accents she's fluent with but the changes that surround the basic information. "Attitude" accompanies every one of these accents.

One word of caution. Slang, whether it's street slang or business jargon, can help make your character distinctive, but it has pitfalls you must be careful to avoid.

Awareness is 3/4 of the battle and I now have the tools to begin to grasp some of the things that contribute to my characters' distinctive voices, and I hope you've been able to add something to your arsenal, too.

I'd love to hear what tricks of the trade you use to make your characters' voices distinctive.

Posted by Suzie Quint 21 Oct 2014 at 00:19
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Responses to this blog

Bethanne80 21 Oct 2014 at 17:58  
This is some really sweet advice. I have a few characters that I KNOW have different voices - my MC sounds a lot like me (slightly informal), and my next prominent character has a more regal, well-bred voice, and tends to avoid contractions and slang.

Now I have a question: how would one go about giving accents or voices to fantasy creatures such as elves, dragons, dwarves, unicorns, faeries, or whatever else speaks? It seems wrong to give these creatures accents that originated in our world when they exist in their own. Thoughts?
Imjustdru 21 Oct 2014 at 18:38  
Man, I pointed out to a few members of this circle on how accents are a helluva thing to pull off in writing, and this is so on the spot. I admit to not getting around that kind of thing in my WIP's, but I try to emulate a few of them vocally.
Sheridan 22 Oct 2014 at 07:32  
Good point about finding ways to give our characters recognizable individuality beyond their accents.

Susieq 22 Oct 2014 at 08:50  
Quote by: Bethanne80
Now I have a question: how would one go about giving accents or voices to fantasy creatures such as elves, dragons, dwarves, unicorns, faeries, or whatever else speaks? It seems wrong to give these creatures accents that originated in our world when they exist in their own. Thoughts?

If it were me, I'd probably borrow what George Lucas did with Yoda and make some grammatical changes. Of course, you don't want your character sounding like Yoda, but the principle is the same. This is where I'd pull out the Herman books to look for ideas. FREX, I was reading about how the French speak English the other day and Hermann points out that, because of the way their language is structured, French speakers tend to put definite articles in front of all concrete nouns, so I might lift that single thing and then combine it with something from another dialect pattern. Something perhaps from Creole which is rich with dialectic uniqueness. I'd probably sprinkle (lightly) with made up words or phrases that suggest a foreign language. Something reminiscent of the way a French person might say Mon Deiu in an emotional moment. I think it's important not to get too heavy handed because you don't want it to be a struggle to read.

Good luck with creating those voices.

__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Bethanne80 22 Oct 2014 at 18:51  
Susieq: thanks for all those suggestions! I feel like you've just given me some material to play around with. *puts on thinking cap and winks*
Sunhillow 4 Nov 2014 at 05:41  
Nice article. The Irishisms "that wee brilliant cadence" etc. were very stage-y though... maybe the lads down in the pub were laying it on thick? A good reference for how we do speak is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiberno-English
Susieq 4 Nov 2014 at 10:43  
Quote by: Sunhillow
Nice article. The Irishisms "that wee brilliant cadence" etc. were very stage-y though... maybe the lads down in the pub were laying it on thick? A good reference for how we do speak is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiberno-English


I doubt they "laid it on thick" for 10+ years.

__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Samantha2 2 Dec 2015 at 07:02  

Good point about finding ways to give our characters recognizable individuality beyond their accents.
- totally agree

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