Distinctive Voice For Each Character

When a friend phones you, you recognize without being told that it's Jim on the line and not Harry. Even before you peek at the signature on a letter, you can tell from the way she describes events that it came from Karen and not Melissa.

Everyone sounds different. Not only does the sound of the voice have unique qualities—high-pitched or low, breathy, raspy, musical—but the words we choose and the way we string them together are individual as well.

Listen to the three characters below. Each one is conveying the same information to the same man but doing so in his or her own personal style:

Paul: "Excuse me, Mr. Honeycut, sir, but please do partake of some of this lovely chocolate mousse. I think you will find it suitably delicious. And Pierre assures me that it is not fattening."

Anthony: "Yo, Honeycut! Hey man, get yourself down with some of this chocolate mouse—I mean mousse. It's way cool—like ta-ays-tee! And guaranteed low-cal, too, man. You know that Pierre dude? He says so for sure."

Suzette: "Dessert time, Mr. Honeycut! And look what we've got for you! Chocolate mousse! Don't you just love chocolate? It's my very favorite food in the whole world. But here's the best part—Pierre says this is skinny chocolate mousse. So we can eat as much as we want and not feel one bit guilty. Isn't he just a dream of a cook?"

Without knowing any more about these people, their relationship to Mr. Honeycut, or the occasion at which the chocolate mousse is being served, you have probably already formed strong impressions of Paul, Anthony, and Suzette—their ages, their positions in life, their personalities, even what they look like.

Your job as the author of a story is to help each character find his or her own distinctive voice. Readers should be able to identify which character is speaking by his or her speech pattern. The more you can distinguish your characters by their manner of speaking, the more the reader will believe in them as real individuals.

This is trickier when your characters have a lot in com-mon—when they come from the same region or socioeconomic background, have equivalent levels of education, or have similar hobbies or professions. But even people who are similar in most respects have their own habits and quirks when it comes to speaking.

Sometimes when you know your characters intimately, you come to hear their voices clearly in your head. Writing dialogue then becomes almost a matter of taking down their dictation. But writers are not always that lucky. Often we must work hard on a character's voice, first to hear it and then to reproduce it on the page.

One way to develop your ear is to engage in creative eavesdropping. When you are at work, at school, on a bus, in a cafe, listen closely to how the people you encounter express themselves. You're listening not for content but for the kinds of words and phrases they use and the rhythm and beat of their speech.

Use the Tip Sheet: Dialogue on page 49 to guide your listening and to give each character an individual voice.

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