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.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  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.  

Education

Depending 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 Chameleons

Another 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 Accents

  In 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!"
— Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
 

Non-Native Speakers

  A trap writers often fall into when creating the dialogue of non-native speakers is to pepper the dialogue with the speaker's native language. Often, words such as 'yes', 'no', or greetings are chosen, when they are usually the first words a language learner would learn and are therefore the least likely to not be translated. Instead, think about words used for the people they love, such as 'mother', 'father', etc. As this is a word they call someone, it stands to reason they are less likely to translate that.   Another way to characterise a non-native speaker is to focus on grammar and word order, rather than smattering the text with foreign words. For example, an English speaker would know that 'a purple large bird' is incorrect, but a non-native speaker would not. A non-native speaker is also likely to use synonyms interchangeably, whereas a native speaker would know the nuances and connotations of each word.  

Coming Next...

  Next time, I will be focusing on reader questions about dialogue. The three articles I have written have all been brief overviews, and each section could easily be a whole book in itself. If there is something I haven't covered that you are really interested in, please comment down below.


Cover image: by Patrick Fore

Comments

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30 Nov, 2021 00:17

What are your thoughts on the use of varied sentence length in dialog?

Lead Author of Vazdimet.
Necromancy is a Wholesome Science.
30 Nov, 2021 00:18

Great question, thank you! <3

Sage Dylonishere123
R. Dylon Elder
1 Dec, 2021 04:30

OOOO very nice! all good points. Im glad you covered nonnative speakers to cause that's something ive wondered about for some time.

1 Dec, 2021 12:57

World Anvil has introduced me to a lot of non-native speakers, so it was a no brainer to cover. :D Thank you! <3

Eternal Sage AmélieIS
Amélie I. S. Debruyne
2 Dec, 2021 00:29

Great article :D   I agree that grammar/word order and word choice are the best way to signal that a character is a foreigner. Though most of the time I just write like you've said "she has x accent", at least in first draft.   For educated and/or clever character, a suggestion I've seen is that, rather than using long words, a good thing to do is to show that they skip reasoning steps in dialogues. The jargon is definitely a good one, with different comparisons/metaphors, references and in-jokes.

To see what I am up to, here is my civilisation challenge article.
2 Dec, 2021 00:30

Ohh, that's a great suggestion too, with the leaps of logic. :D Thank you!

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