I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voices lately, prompted in part by a book where the characters were strong but their voices all sounded a little same-ish to me. They might have been speaking and acting in unique ways but their voices – which take in thoughts and personality and experience and so much more than just dialogue – felt a tad monotone. It diluted my experience of an otherwise powerful story.
Elsewhere on this site I’ve posted about reading your work aloud to see how the sentences sound. It’s also a good way to hear whether the dialogue sounds real. Would your characters actually converse that way? To create authentic voices, you need to listen … and then dig a little deeper.
There’s a snatch of dialogue in the song below (approx 2 mins 53 secs) where the master storyteller Paul Kelly gives us the words of Queenie, one of the title characters. It’s only a handful of phrases but, based on my experience with indigenous Australians, it’s enough to get a real sense of character and voice. To my mind, that passage is the heart of the song. Where the friendship begins.
I like to listen to people speak – not polished public speaking but everyday yammer. I listen for the slang they use, idiosyncratic phrasing and vocabulary that I don’t hear from other people.
Our fridge-freezer expired over the weekend and we had a repairman visit early today. He poked about briefly and pronounced the machine to be deceased. Mr Repairman hailed from Sri Lanka, spotted our reasonably new washing machine and then proceeded to lecture me on using it correctly. If you can imagine the sub-continental accent, the conversation went a bit like this:
Him: “You know you must use the proper setting for the whites. Use the machine correctly. By using the ‘whites’ setting you will not be needing bleach or anything like that and the clothes will be coming out whiter than white.”
Me: “We use cold water.”
Him: “Oh no! You must be using the correct setting and just normal powder. It will wash at 90 degrees and you will be very happy. I tell my wife ‘you must use the white setting’ as my singlets, they are cream. People seeing me work in my singlets will be thinking ‘you are a shabby man’. But aaah, no, she does not…”
Language and verbal mannerisms go a long way to making the voice of your characters authentic. It’s why Lauren Child’s Charlie & Lola books are such fun to read – the characters are coming to grips with adult language and misusing words deliciously.
So treat every conversation as a chance to tune in on language. Listening is research for every story you write.