Writing Tips: Character as Voice
Last week we talked about using image to present your characters. This week I want to discuss a second way of character presentation: voice. In the same manner that you tell from a couple of words over the telephone who you’re speaking to, your readers should be able to recognize a character from her/his voice. All characters should have their own way of talking marked by difference in diction (word choice), rhythm, and style. In addition to differentiating between characters, the words a character uses and the manner of her/his speech can reveal a lot about the person.
Blaine, who begins The Goddess’s Choice as an undersecretary in the library, reveals himself through his speech. When he is summoned by the princess, the chief librarian asks him if he has offended the princess. He replies, “I-I don’t know. I-I had no intention of doing so. I-I did see Her Highness in the clerks’ office earlier, but I did bow, and I’m sure I did it appropriately. At least, I-I think I did. I did it exactly as you said I should if I ever passed her in the halls. At least, I think I-I did.” As you can see, he talks too fast, says too much, and stammers. With these few words, the reader sees that he is very unsure of himself. This is further emphasized when the princess makes him her secretary and asks his opinion of her plans for the king’s birthday celebration. He responds, “Well, I’m sure Your Highness knows what she’s doing, and if you like things this way, I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine way to have them. I know I have very little experience, and Your Highness must have a very good reason for having—” The princess has to cut him off to get an answer.
Even without attributions, readers would never confuse Blaine with Darhour. Darhour strikes terror into the new secretary with few words. He threatens, “I am Captain Darhour, the commander of the princess’s personal guard. Her safety is my responsibility.” Darhour speaking those few words causes Blaine to fear for his life. Darhour doesn’t need to say much to cause men to “piss in their pants.”
The villain of the piece, Argblutal, reveals his contempt for women by the words he uses to describe them. He tells Count Nola, “Everything about Her Highness is my business. I will marry her. No chit is going to keep me from the throne that should have been mine by right of blood.” And “chit” is one the nicer words he uses to describe her. His thoughts further the reader’s distaste for him. “The air of authority in her voice grated on the duke. His groin tightened as he thought about the deliciousness of teaching her a woman’s proper place. He imagined her naked and tied to his bed. Her breasts were a good deal smaller than he preferred. But as he imagined thrashing them with his cat-o-nine, no breasts had ever excited him more.”
To get a character’s voice right, you need to place yourself in the character’s mind. Inhabit the character and see what words come pouring out. Through it all, it’s important to remember your job is getting your readers to care about your characters. It’s impossible for him/her to care much if they all sound like carbon copies of each other.
Tell me what you think, or describe the way your favorite character speaks in the comments below.