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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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