Thursday, January 17, 2013

Character Voices

First, I'd like to thank the folks here at The Blood-Red Pencil for inviting me to become an official member of their team. I've enjoyed my slots as a guest, but now I'm a "regular." I'm going to start off with two posts about voice. The first is about character voices. The next time I'm up, I'll talk about the authorial voice, which is more elusive.

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same "Talking to a Child" voice. Obviously, it doesn't bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it's consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn't just a one-time deal.

It's important in a book that characters not only sound like themselves, but don't sound like each other. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. Ideally, a reader should be able to know who's speaking from the dialogue on the page without beats, tags, or narrative.

Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women. They're hard-wired differently. I'm a woman, and in my first drafts the dialogue will lean in that direction. After I've written my male characters' dialogue, I go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

A few tips to make your characters sound like themselves. (I could go on forever, but one of the guidelines I was given for these posts was to hover around the 500 word mark.)

Don't rely on the "clever." Dialect is a pitfall—more like the Grand Canyon. If you're relying on phonetic spelling to show dialect, you'll stop your readers cold. Nobody wants to stop to sound out words. You can show dialects or accents with one or two word choices, or better yet, have another character notice. "She heard the Texas in his voice" will let the reader know.

Give your characters a few simple "go to" words or phrases. For me, this is often deciding what words my character will use when he or she swears (since I write a lot of cops and covert ops teams, swearing is a given). Then, make sure he or she is the only person who uses that word or phrase.

Keep the narrative "in character" as well. This especially includes internal monologue, and even extends to narrative. Keep your metaphors and similes in character. If your character's a mechanic, he's not likely to think of things in terms of ballet metaphors.

What your character says and does reveals a lot to your readers. Workshops I've attended have given out the standard character worksheets (which have me screaming and running for the hills), but it's the "other" questions that reveal your character. What's in her purse? What's in his garbage? What does he/she order at Starbucks? Would he/she even be caught dead in a Starbucks?

How do you keep your characters distinct? How do you get to know them? Do you need to know a lot before you start, or are you (like I am) someone who learns about them as you go?



Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

31 comments :

  1. It's great to have you joining us officially, Terry. Welcome again.

    One book that stood out to me regarding character voices was Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. Most of the characters spoke in a similar dialect, no matter their level of education. They all sounded the same. And the narration had the same grammatical errors that the main character made.

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  2. This is so timely for me. I'm really struggling with this in the book I'm currently working on. I've never written historical fiction before and I'm finding it so difficult to get the voice of my characters right.

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  3. Elle - it seems 'unfair' to the reader to make them work so hard to tell who's speaking. Or to differentiate between characters--their personalities need to show when they speak.

    Lauri - good luck! Writing historical dialogue would do me in.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  4. Terry, Thanks for the tips, and I hope that you use another of your future 500 words to continue the tips list.

    I co-author with a man, so we definitely have some interesting discussions on our characters' voices at times. Our back and forth is always enjoyable and usually enlightening.

    Related to swearing, in one of our stories, a wife chides her husband on his swearing when he is startled by finding the neighbor's dog under their son's bed. He then substitutes his tastier words with "dadgum." The rest of the story takes place forty years after that incident, following the son, who also uses "dadgum" as his choice mild expletive. (Though he does user stronger words on occasion, as well.) I like that generational word usage to help clue in the reader that little Eddie at the opening is now Ed, the man.

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  5. Alison - good point. Age is an important factor to consider. I somehow managed to get kids into a couple of my books, and although they were fun to write, I always worried that they might sound too much like my kids did when they were young, which was quite some time ago. My grandson is 5 now, so I have another 'role model'

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  6. Congratulations on your assignment, Terry ... and good post to kick it off. I have a favorite expletive that I will use ... say, when I hit my thumb with a hammer ... upon a recent reread of my last tome I noticed more than one character using that rather colorful term ... hadn't seen it before, but once I did it stuck out like a sore thumb ... @#^&%$!

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  7. Very good article; it explains this very well, and how "voice" can be achieved without using hokey dialects. It's a keeper!

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  8. Chris -- not only that, but spell checker hates that kind of expletive. Thanks for commenting. And yes, once your eye gets 'sensitized' things like that will pop...the trick is to train your eye to see them.

    Susan -- glad it was helpful.

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  9. Cloning -- often a problem for writers -- is, after all, easier than remembering the little idiocyncracies of speech (and action) that give characters individuality. Because of this, your post hits home with many of us, a reminder that our fictional folks must be as different as the people who populate our lives and our space.

    Great post, Terry. And welcome to the fold!

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  10. Thanks Linda. Good term. Never thought about 'cloned' characters, but we are in danger of that if we don't make them distinctive beyond the blonde and the redhead.


    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  11. Welcome more often, Terry! This is a punchy post chock full of good advice. I think that the admonition to keep your narrative in character is one too many authors overlook. It can be very powerful. It may not flow that way in the first draft, but is worth revisiting later.

    And your asides about Starbucks are great. A simple way to include more conflict is to put your character in Starbucks even though he never would be caught dead there, and show how he reacts!

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  12. Hi, Terry: and good post. Very helpful, too.

    And when it comes to writing men--short and sweet.

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  13. Kathryn, I LOVE putting my characters into situations where they're 'fish out of water' if I may use a cliche here (my brain is foggy today). All my Blackthorne books take covert ops specialists and shove them into 'civilization' where they can't use the tools they're used to relying on.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  14. All great reminders, Terry! Thank you!

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  15. Terry, This is a great post. I couldn't agree more. I love a distinctive swear word! Currently, I am writing a character that intentionally speaks English poorly. She drops articles and only speaks in the present tense. She's one of my favorite characters I've ever written, so I am not objective-- I am relying on beta readers to tell me if it's too much.

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  16. Amber, beta readers are great. They can be objective and if they're honest, they can really keep you 'in line'

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  17. Love it, Terry.
    I heard recently that guys just don't ask questions. And, going through my ms, I found I was actually able to remove a good bit of questions...just making them statements or revising a bit so that the dialogue seemed more realistic.

    :D Great article.

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  18. Bethanne - Much of the time I omit question marks when my male characters are speaking, because they're not really asking, they're telling. Those little intros such as, "Why don't you have a seat?" are more out of courtesy to the situation, although what they're really saying is, "Sit down!"

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  19. Congratulations on becoming a regular, Terry.

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  20. Thanks, Karen -- nice to see you here.

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  21. Good one, Terry! Thanks for joining us!

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  22. I have read Terry Odell. All her characters have a unique voice all their own...

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  23. Thanks to all for the warm welcome. And thanks, Brian for your kind words. Good to know I can practice what I preach.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  24. Chiming in late, but welcome to the fold. What a terrific post. Like you, I recently went back and cut the dialogue for a male character a lot. I discovered in reading through scenes a second time I was having him speak, and even think, too much like a woman.

    I agree with Alison that it does help to write a story with a man to get the male dialogue nailed. I have co-written screenplays with men and really appreciated that they could get the male perspective just right.

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  25. Thanks, Maryann. One of my crit partners is a guy, and I also run things by the Hubster for his take. Sometimes he'll catch non-dialogue stuff and say, "You know? when she sat on the couch and tucked her legs under her? He'd have looked." I thought he was just being his normal perverted self, but I ran that one by a bunch of males, and they all said it was a no-brainer.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  26. True, Terry, I'm also critical of dialogue tags, though I rather miss the linguistic gusto of earlier eras. '"You bounder!" he expostulated.'

    That said, we can go too far in giving every character a catchphrase so they can be easily identified. I once had a manager who referred to every form as a 'billet doux'. Each month I had to submit 'a little billet doux' to him to claim my expenses. He was straight out of Dickens. Alas, there's room for only one Mr Pickwick...

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  27. Good points, John -- everything in moderation. You can probably get away with one or two of those creative dialogue tags in a book. And a character who's always using a catch phrase can get annoying...but if that's your intent, then it can be a good thing (as long as you clue the reader in that it's intentional.) I did have a phrase in one of my books that my crit partners found "excessive" until it played out and became an endearment used between my hero and heroine. And then there was one that became a major clue as to a bad guy's identity.

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  28. Not easy writing a book!So many things to remember. write,reread and edit, write some more. And I sleep-write. It never ends and what a ride it's been. Thanks for all the good pointers, Terry.

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  29. That was very helpful. Thank you. Sometimes I think I learn more from writer blogs than I do from the online classes. So if my punk bad guys are talking I should tell my reader they are talking street talk. Signed up and looking forward to more insight.

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  30. Charmaine - people seem to think that if you can read a book, you should be able to write one. Not so. It's work. Hard work. And you have to learn how to do it.

    Mary Frances - glad you're finding the blog helpful. There's a lot of information out there--you have to find what works for you.

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  31. Terry, terrific article, with some excellent advice.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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