Aria (pyrrhiccomedy) wrote,
Aria
pyrrhiccomedy

How You Say: some thoughts on finding a character's voice.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and maybe some of you out there will find something useful in my thinkfulness?

I have been thinking about the importance of voice in characterization. Not the author's voice--the voices of the characters, and how to make them distinct, and how making them distinct can strengthen your story.

Maybe you've heard this before: it's a rule of thumb for artists who are developing OCs, and I've always kept it in mind as excellent advice: "You should be able to tell which of your characters is which even if they're in silhouette...and naked...and they've had their heads shaved."

I loved that. I thought: that goes for a character's way of expressing himself, too! The hair, clothes, accessories, all that surface stuff--that's your verbal tics, your character-specific turns of phrase. Now, those things aren't bad. There's nothing wrong with having certain phrases turn up periodically in a particular character's speech, any more than it's bad to have a character with a distinctive hair color, because people in the real world have things like that, too. So long as they're not overwhelming your characterizations, or standing in place of your characterizations, they're fine.

But if that's all you've got to differentiate your characters from each other when they're talking, they're going to feel cutout, boring, and samey: like a long row of totally identical animu pixies who can only be told apart by the color and spikiness of their hair. There's nothing more drab than reading a story with ten characters--ten characters who might honestly be unique and compelling and well-developed individuals!--who all sound exactly alike.

Here's the rule I made for myself as a writer: You should be able to tell which of your characters is speaking just from reading a few lines of their dialogue...even if you strip out all their verbal tics, and make them all talk about the same thing.

Just like artists, who want to give their characters different heights, weights, builds, musculature, skeletal structures, and so on in order to make them visually distinct and interesting, we want to make the underlying structure of how our characters speak distinctive and compelling. I've categorized a bunch of different structural distinctions below: try thinking about them in terms of your OCs or favorite fandom characters!


CASUAL ------ FORMAL


The most obvious one. How casual is the character when they address others? Is it "Yes" or "Yeah?" "How do you do" or "What's up?" "Miserable weather we're having" or "It's pissing down, huh?"

A cheat for this when you're writing in English--there are cheats--is to make the mental distinction between Latinate and Germanic root words. In English, the former are seen to be more formal, a sign of education, and so on; the latter are more casual, 'approachable,' and low-brow words. It's the difference between "His instructor informed him that his performance was adequate" and "His teacher told him that he was doing well." Same sentence, same idea: put together by two quite different people.


INELOQUENT ------ ELOQUENT


How well does the character actually manage to express what they want to say? do they choose the right words the first time, or do they flounder around to make themselves comprehensible? Do they find themselves needing to explain their thoughts over and over again before they're understood? Remember: a character can speak very formally, or have a very rich vocabulary, and still not know what to do with all those words!


HAPHAZARD ----- STRUCTURED


How planned are the sentences this character puts together? Do they get to mid-sentence and suddenly change direction? Do they digress, change tenses, or sometimes reach the end of their sentence without ever having found a verb at all? Or do they manage to complete one thought before moving on to another?

At this point you can start to have fun with this. Try to imagine a speaker who is Eloquent, but Haphazard: his sentences are meandering, he intercepts his own train of thought two or three times by the time he's done speaking, but you nonetheless understand what he means. An Ineloquent Structured speaker, on the other hand, will deliver discreet, sensible sentences which go directly from point A to point B, but he still doesn't quite manage to get his idea across.


LACONIC ----- LOQUACIOUS


How many words does the character use to say what they want to say? Maybe a Loquacious speaker loves the sound of his own voice--or maybe he's nervous and just can't stop talking. Maybe a Laconic speaker is gruff and clumsy with words, and so prefers to say as little as possible--or maybe he's searingly witty, and simply believes that less is more.


VULGAR ----- CLEAN


Some characters cuss up a blue streak. Some will drop the occasional F-bomb. Some just won't curse unless they slam their hand in the car door (and some won't even do it then). Where does your character fall?


It's important to realize that none of these categories have any bearing on your character's PERSONALITY. Your character may be polite or rude, serious or funny, vague or detail-oriented, flirty or sober--and of course that's going to affect the content of what they say. All we're talking about, however, is how they say it. Imagine a rude, funny, detail-oriented character who is Formal, Vulgar, and Structured--and then a character with those same traits who is Casual, Clean, and Haphazard. They sound completely different, and you can tell who is who at a glance!

Here's some examples taken from the Hetalia fandom using common characterizations, to hopefully help you see what I'm getting at:

AMERICA: Casual, Ineloquent, Haphazard, Loquacious, and not especially Vulgar or Clean.
ENGLAND: Formal, Eloquent, Structured, not especially Laconic or Loquacious, and Vulgar.
GERMANY: Not especially Formal or Informal, Ineloquent, Structured, Laconic, and Clean.
ITALY: Not especially Formal or Informal, Ineloquent, Haphazard, Loquacious, and Clean.
PRUSSIA: Casual, not especially Eloquent or Ineloquent, Structured, Loquacious, and Vulgar.
FRANCE: Formal, Eloquent, Haphazard, Loquacious, and not especially Vulgar or Clean.

I hope some of this has been helpful to some of you, and gotten a few of you thinking about how to give your characters in fandom and in your original projects the distinct voices they deserve! If your characters all have their own unique ways of speaking, your dialogue will be richer, more spontaneous, more fun to read, and feel a lot more true to real life conversations.

Thank you for reading!

Tags: discuss, meta
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This was really helpful! I for one kind of suck at making characters distinguishable in their speech (mostly I think of them by their clothing styles which is probably the worst way to go about things haha). I'll be sure to keep this in mind as I work on my own original projects! <3

(I will also constantly refer to your Hetalia voices chart to make sure I am Doing It Right. xD)
Ah, I'm so glad this was useful to you! =D It's something I used to be really bad at, to be honest, but over the past two years or so I've been trying to improve. Hetalia makes it easy, I think--we all have these fixed ideas in our heads of How English People Talk, How Germans Talk, etc. XD

(I will also constantly refer to your Hetalia voices chart to make sure I am Doing It Right. xD)

Hahaha, well, these are just my opinions, obviously! But, I think, by and large, the above holds true for most characterizations of the nations. =D

deixis_dyad

7 years ago

pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

deixis_dyad

7 years ago

pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

deixis_dyad

7 years ago

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I'm so glad you found something useful in it! =D
Good to see this, thanks for sharing ♥
Your thoughts are interesting. I'm not sure I'm this far along as a writer but the charts definitely help as a systematic way to think about it. Maybe I need to practice writing different characters reacting to the same thing to get a better handle on the differences.
Anyway, I know what I'm doing with my spare time this afternoon now-trying out the artist version you mention XD Facial silhouettes I could maybe handle but I need full body silhouette practice badly.
Maybe I need to practice writing different characters reacting to the same thing to get a better handle on the differences.

That's actually a really good exercise! Sometimes I assemble my OCs and I'm like, "Okay, describe a trip to the grocery store." Just a long chain of narration, you know? Forcing them to string sentences together about a subject they don't feel especially invested in, and seeing how differently they put things.

The only danger is if any of your characters are truly chatty bitches, you may have 700 words of rambling about the grocery store at the end of it. XD

Facial silhouettes I could maybe handle but I need full body silhouette practice badly.

Me too. x_x

nym_aulth

7 years ago

pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

Awesome meta!

It certainly helps in my case; I do write a lot of Australia!fic, so this will definitely help gauge his characterization a little bit better, since uhm, there isn't exactly one in the first place. It's definitely risky - playing something by ear and not waiting for any canon material - but when you love a character, you just gotta write him! ;P

Thanks for sharing this!
Oh, absolutely. Australia pretty much is an OC, band-aid on the nose or not. I'm really glad this helped! =D

HNNNNNGH.

didgeridoodle

7 years ago

Thank you so much! This is really helpful.

And thus I defined the topic of my future term paper. :) Starting next week, I'm going to take the Psychology Of Speech classes, but honestly, with this post I already feel a little bit educated in this field. ♥
Oh my God, that class sounds fascinating, I wish I could take it.

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As a disclaimer, I probably should admit that I skimmed rather than studied this--not because it isn't interesting and valuable, but because I'm the kind of writer who needs to run on instinct rather than thinking consciously. Definitely doesn't make me a better kind of writer and I hope it doesn't make me worse; it's just something I've learned the hard way about myself.

Of course. This won't be useful for everybody, and some writers can rapidly reach a point of oversaturation when it comes to systemic thinking. =D For me personally, I find it useful to have systems in place to keep my own excesses in check.

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pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

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pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

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pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

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pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

Basically, I agree with everything!

I think voice is also really important to consider in the way you structure your narration, at least if you're writing from a first- or tight-third point-of-view. I can't count the number of fics (original and fan-) I've read where the dialogue's been lovely and witty and all those wonderful things and the narration has Lots Of Pretty Words In, but how the character thinks and how the character talks never quite match up. This axis approach is a great kind of checklist to keep that from happening -- if a character's Ineloquent and Haphazard, those same sentence-patterns should probably pop up when he's describing, say, a house. (Or a cottage. No, it's a little bigger than a cottage, one story with a pert little gable and brick walls -- a bungalow? Yeah, that.)

Ahem. Anyway, I'm a huge nerd about how form informs characterization just as much as what's actually going on in the story does, so this post gives me joy. Lots of joy.
how the character thinks and how the character talks never quite match up.

Ooh, yes, that's a really significant issue. I remember betaing a fic for a friend, once, and it had this issue, and I had a really hard time describing what the problem was beyond "He sounds like America on the outside, but he needs to sound like America on the inside." Keeping the POV character's voice in narration does so much work for you in drawing the reader into their head.

I think one of my favorite intros into a chapter of TCE that Emily and I ever wrote started with something like "It was a beautiful spring day, if you were into that kind of shit." It was a chapter from Prussia's POV.
How excellent! I've been interested in how you come around to your characters' voices for a while, as they are so distinct and enjoyable to read. Besides the fact that I pop boners for charts and categorizing things and generally struggle with character voices anyway, so this was ever so lovely on a few different levels. ♥
This isn't really something I'd ever codified before? But Emily and I are making so many OCs these days that it kinda seemed, uhm, wise, to put my thoughts down somewhere nice and tidy so I didn't panic and start making all my characters sound exactly the same. XD I'm really glad you liked it! And that you also have a boner for charts. I used to think my woody for charts was unparalleled.

djsoliloquy

7 years ago

This is so just what I needed. I'm writing an original story and this is something I've been fretting about with my characters. This is like an early Christmas gift, really. xD

Ah, I'm so glad! =D It was something I really needed to write out for my characters, since I've been fretting, too!
This is insanely relevant to my interests.

In fact, I may or many not have just written it down and put it on a little pink post-it next to my laptop. ♥ Because it's something I really need to work on.


Originally I was just writing this as a "hey Emily let's work out how our Gilded Souls characters are distributed across this matrix and see if we can't nail down some of those elusive voices" thing for the GS comm, and then I realized that maybe, uh, other people might also find it handy.

But I am still going to be all "EMILY HEY EMILY HEY" as soon as you log on.

Log on, already.

wizzard890

7 years ago

pyrrhiccomedy

7 years ago

wizzard890

7 years ago

This was very interesting! I have a similar sort of list in my head - except it's not really a list, it's more a half-thought out, vague set ideas - that I use for OCs and stuff I write for class. It's really helpful having a chart like this; I usually write period pieces and half the time I'm spazzing over whether the speech styles or the vocab are historically correct and every now again I have to tell myself, "Wait, what they say isn't always more important than how they say it."

Thanks for sharing!
I have a similar sort of list in my head - except it's not really a list, it's more a half-thought out, vague set ideas

Hahaha, that's all this was as of this morning! I decided that I needed to write it down so I wouldn't screw up any of my new OCs. >_>;

Thank you for reading! =D
Characterization in dialogue is one of the few things I can write well! The rest of my writing tends to flow as well as a dried out marker that has been floating around the bottom of a drawer for at least half decade. It's getting better though. Slowly.
America is by far my favorite to write. I get to use all sorts of funky contractions and colloquialisms~
But thank you fro the tips! :>
It's sad, but the part that you were talking about artists being able to distinguish the characters... I can't do that yet. orz I'm just starting to develop that skill. /fail mostly self taught artist
This really is a strong point of yours! I'm glad you enjoyed reading through all this anyway, though. =D

America's voice is so much fun, hoshit.

It's sad, but the part that you were talking about artists being able to distinguish the characters... I can't do that yet. orz I'm just starting to develop that skill. /fail mostly self taught artist

Fffff I can't do it either, sob ;_;

mcmitters

7 years ago

My God, you're a genius! I swear it, this has to be one of the most useful entries I've ever found in LJ. I've never thought about it, buy you are absolutely right.

*adds to memories*
*blush* You are so sweet! I'm really glad this was helpful to you! =D
This is fantastic. Voice is really hard for a lot of people; I've gotten better at it as time's gone by, and my writing classes have helped, too.
This is really well explained, though. I'm saving this. ♥

=^..^=~
I'm so glad you found something valuable in it! =D
Butbutbut there are so many shades of grey! I pretty much agree with everything you said, but if I were to sit down and try to assign one word or the other to a character, I would go nuts making arguements for each side! Maybe the indecision is the reason I'm not a particularly good writer.

Voice is tough, and I'm glad you made this checklist for people. It's helpful! Also, I miss you on Lj. I'm glad you posted again. =D
Butbutbut there are so many shades of grey!

Oh, of course! =D Nobody is always one thing or the other thing, and some of the categories just don't seem to fit at all. I hope that this matrix will be a helpful tool for a few people to have in their toolbox, when they're developing a new character, or trying to get a handle on writing a fandom character--but it definitely doesn't cover everything!

Also, I miss you on Lj. I'm glad you posted again. =D

Ah, thank you, you're very sweet! =D
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