Variety in Voices

Streetcar - Blanche and Stanley

‘How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour?’ – Character Archetypes

Writing good dialogue is hard. One of the traps is the characters all sounding too similar, generally like versions of yourself. In real life people sound different from each other. That means not just with their own accents and slang, but with how they approach topics and conversations in line with their personality.

Writing accents phonetically is an approach you can take to set a voice apart – everyone remembers how Hagrid sounds. But this can be cringy and distracting. Arlene Prunkl has some useful tips and examples for showing accent and dialect without relying on excessive misspellings and contractions.

Think about words and phrases that a character might use. A tendency to start a subject with ‘so,’ occasionally saying ‘thingamajig’ while gesturing to the object, in-jokes shared with other characters, calling a garage a car hole, favourite swear words (or avoiding them), punctuating sentences with ‘like’. These things can help set the voices of your characters apart, and are an inroad to showing clues about their background and personal traits.

Then there’s the larger level. How much do they speak? How much do they interrupt? Do they ask questions more or less than others? How are they as a listener? Are they sarcastic? Do they approach topics directly or indirectly? And so on.

This is the level that really requires getting in touch with the character, having a feel for how they’d come across.

When we read A Streetcar Named Desire in school we did some work on how the main characters spoke, and tried writing some dialogue as they’d speak it. Mimicking an existing character with a strong voice can be a good exercise in how variety in dialogue styles works.

Here’s Blanche – neurotic rapid-fire speech, full of imperatives, literary/melodramatic:

Yes, something – ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in – anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! […] God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!

Stanley would never talk like that – he’s a completely different person.

Another exercise is to write the same dialogue from different characters.

Person A: ‘So… Um, I was thinking. Maybe we should take another look at that thing? I know you said the case was settled, but it doesn’t feel right. I think Paul might be up to something.’

Person B: ‘Hey, we gotta go back there. You said case closed, but I’m opening it. Paul’s dirtier than your laundry.’

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