Hearing voices

One of the things that can make or break your story is getting the voices of the characters right. You’re ploughing through a book, enjoying the plot and then one of the characters uses language that just doesn’t fit (e.g. a five-year-old uses the word ‘loquacious’ or something equally unlikely). The whole story suddenly becomes less plausible. Things don’t ring true.

One wrong word or phrase can stick out like a disastrous casting decision in a movie. Months of research on your plot can go to waste if the voices grate.

So how do you get the voices right? One of the tricks is to listen. If you’re writing about children, talk to them first. Listen to how they blend, shorten, mispronounce or approximate words. My daughter recently told me a princess in one of her videos was named “Uriness”. It took me a bit of work to establish that the castle staff were actually calling the princess “Your Highness”.

You’ll also need to do your research. Because one of my narrators in Game as Ned has an autism spectrum disorder, I did a lot of reading on how this can affect thinking, speaking and relating to the world. Most importantly, I found books by authors with autism such as Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This helped me view the world through eyes that brought different perspectives to my own.

Another character in GAN, Mick, is an ocker raised on a farm and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam. I’d assumed I’d be safe for Mick to use typically Aussie ‘strine’ expressions such as “she’ll be right” and “no worries, mate” but these were queried by the publishers as potentially too recent for a character in a 1970s setting. So you need to fact check voices too. Phrases and slang have use-by dates.

For the record, my intrepid wife tracked down a linguistics professor who was able to carbon date and verify the phrases I wanted to use.

You also need a good sense of what make your characters tick. If you understand and feel the things that motivate them, you should start to sense how they’d communicate. Would they have oft-repeated favourite words or phrases? Their own idiosyncratic idiom?

And, when you have spent enough time with your characters you might actually start to hear them in your head. Rather than a sign of madness, this can be a breakthrough moment. Writing their voices is almost like dictation once you can hear them.

I began writing GAN as a teenager. After a journalism career postponed the project, it was more than a decade before I returned to my manuscript. As I read through my earlier work, everything felt wrong. It took me a while to realise that, just as I had aged, so had my characters. Their voices sounded too young. I had a lot of rewriting ahead of me. The story is, I believe, the better for it.

Incidentally, there’s nothing to say a five-year-old can’t use the word loquacious. But if it’s going to be plausible you’ll need to create a character who can persuasively and believably spit out all those syllables.

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