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.’

Stretching Your Voice

The idea of ‘finding your voice’ is one that comes up a lot in how-to-write-good. While I do think that, to a certain extent, we each have unique writing styles and trying to cram yourself into the wrong style or tone can result in strained and inauthentic results… I also think there’s value to going against the grain.

Deliberately writing outside the comfort zone of what you think your voice is. Just for a bit. Nobody has to see what you’ve produced. You might hate it and never do it again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t gain something from it. It can be helpful to expand your vocal range.

Doing creative writing at Nottingham, there was a semester where we had a guy who loved Hemingway and Carver’s short stories and wanted us to write like that. So we had to try to write in the most minimalistic style possible. Dramatic POV. Characters couldn’t express their real feelings directly, it had to be hidden in subtext and subtle gestures. Descriptions had to be shorn of all unnecessary words. I wrote a short piece set in a war zone for one seminar, and he said I could remove the tank.

It was hard. I’ve never struggled particularly to be concise – at school teachers were always telling me to add words to things, not remove them – but that kind of minimalism was a different ball game. The story I wrote for that assessment was about a woman with feelings for her boyfriend’s brother, Chris. It’s incredibly emotionally muted. Get a load of these red-blooded humans:

They sat drinking coffee. Jake switched on the TV. The news was on. People had shot a lot of people in Paris and then blown themselves up, in stadiums, restaurants. They sat making disapproving comments as the reporters described what had happened. Many people had been killed and security was being increased in airports and other places. ‘Glad I’m not going yet.’ [Chris said]

‘I’d be quite upset if you were on a plane that got blown up,’ Sarah said.

‘Hmm,’ Jake said.

‘I should think so,’ Chris said. ‘I wouldn’t like it much either.’

‘I guess not,’ Jake said.

Bleh. 650 words in, in desperation to have something happen, I made the characters go play crazy golf for some reason. It’s so, so boring, and unlike anything I’d normally write.

But I’m glad I wrote it. That semester did make me better at writing dialogue, small meaningful actions and gestures, subtext. It was a crash course in ‘show, don’t tell,’ by going to an extreme where nothing whatsoever could be told outright. While I haven’t completely adopted the style I learnt in that semester, it was a useful corrective. My earlier cringy 3edgy5me writing was full of purple prose and bloated, melodramatic exposition, and this taught me how to not do that so badly.

Maybe you tend to write in dramatic POV with a very minimalist style. Well, try writing a stream-of-consciousness or something. Try going first-person and knuckle-deep in your character’s brain meat. It might teach you something. If you write dystopia… try writing a scene in a comedy. And so on.

Making yourself find new ways to approach a task which you have a go-to method for makes you pause, think about what you’re doing rather than running on autopilot. Running on autopilot means not fully noticing what’s going on, not noticing so much where things are badly written or how they could be better. It’s more difficult for me to justify a self-indulgent paragraph of a character ruminating on how edgy they are now that I know there’s more in the toolbox than that big ol’ sledgehammer.

There’s mounds of writing advice about ‘finding your voice’, and with good reason. People have different writing voices just as they have different speaking voices, and getting comfortable in your own skin rather than doing a bad impression of what you think you’re ‘supposed’ to sound like is a valuable thing. However, going outside our comfort zone from time to time can force us to pick up new tools – tools we can bring back inside our comfort zone, and do better stuff with.