Dialogue 3: Character Voice
Up until now, we have been mainly focused on the mechanics of dialogue. It is time to focus on the more exciting bit, the part that brings your dialogue to life: character voice. Every person has a unique voice. I'm not just talking about the physical sound of their voice, though that's important too. I'm talking about the way they speak, their word choices, the things they opt to say and the things they hold back. Think about the people you know and the conversations you have had with them. Chances are you would say the same thing in different ways, using different words to express the same ideas. For example, there is one specific phrase I use that my wife can't stand. In my family, we either eat 'up the table' or 'down the table.' My wife's family would use 'at the table' and 'in front of the television'. These small changes can make all the difference, even if the reader does not consciously notice them.
A Unique Voice
The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.There are a lot of different factors that contribute to a person's way of speaking. Some of these are outside a person's control, such as social class, access to education, or where they were born. Others reflect the choices that person has made, such as the people they hang around with or the media they consume. A person's unique voice will often go through several shifts over the course of their life.
For example, the use of slang differs depending on generation, but also due to location and social class. In the age of the Internet, slang is much more widespread than it otherwise would have been, so depending on your setting, slang might be highly localised or ubiquitous.
EducationDepending on education level, a person's vocabulary is likely to change. This is, of course, a generalisation - people can expand their vocabulary in other ways, such as reading a variety of books, doing crossword puzzles, etc. In general, people with less education will use shorter, simpler words when compared to those of higher education levels. Not only is a more highly educated person more likely to have a wider vocabulary, they might also use technical language, or jargon, in their everyday speech. A doctor may have a different way of phrasing things to a lawyer, for example. A PhD student in biology might use different metaphors than a professor of literature. Remember, access to education is quite often linked to social class, so there will be an overlap.
Social ChameleonsAnother thing to keep in mind is that a person's voice tends to shift depending on who they are speaking to. Think about your own life and the way you talk. The way you speak to your friends is probably different to the way you speak to your parents. The way you would speak to your boss is probably different to the way you speak to your coworkers. The way you speak to children is probably different to the way you speak to adults. Of course, some people may speak the same in all of these circumstances, but that is often notable due to how uncommon it is.
Regional Dialect and AccentsIn England, before the advent of easy communication, it used to be the case that accents and dialects differed between counties, and sometimes even villages. Though this is less true in modern times, remnants of language differences remain. For example, the word 'twitten' is used in the counties of Sussex to mean 'a narrow path or passage between two walls or hedges'. This word doesn't exist elsewhere in England, apart from in the vocabulary of those who might have moved around. Regional dialects and accents can be difficult to get across in writing, because it is so easy to do wrong. You can definitely use words from regional dialects, but use them in moderation and with plenty of context clues so that the reader can guess at the meaning without having to put the book down and look it up. Another way to do this is to have a character from outside the area ask a clarifying question, but this can often come across as clumsy, so be careful how you use it. With accents, the temptation is to write everything out phonetically. Whilst this certainly gets the point across, this can become quite distracting for the reader to constantly have to decode the mispelled words to understand them. Writing phonetically can also lead to the writing coming across as cartoonish or stereotypical, which writers probably want to avoid. Also, because a disproportionate amount of the reader's attention is going on deciphering their speech, they may miss the nuances of that character's dialogue and personality. So how do you do it? Again, moderation is key. Pick one or two defining features of an accent that you can use consistently and that are not too distracting for a reader. Maybe dropping a 'g' from words, for example. This way you can get across the spirit of an accent without it becoming too much. Of course, writing something like 'she had a strong French accent' or something may get your point across just as well. One thing is for certain - never go full Joseph. Emily Brontë may be able to get away with it, but modern writers certainly can't.
"He's left th' gate at t' full swing, and Miss's pony has trodden dahn two rigs o' corn, and plottered through, raight o'er into t' meadow! Hahsomdiver, t' maister 'ull play t' devil to-morn, and he'll do weel. He's patience itsseln wi' sich careless, offald craters—patience itsseln he is! Bud he'll not be soa allus—yah's see, all on ye! Yah mun'n't drive him out of his heead for nowt!"