Back in high school, a friend informed me about how I slurred certain words. Not like a speech impediment, but more of a dialectic thing. Instead of properly sounding out the words wouldn’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t, and didn’t, I dropped the “ld” part, making them woun’t, coun’t, shoun’t and din’t. I had no idea I was doing this, but apparently I was known for it. I had a reputation, as it were. Not the worst kind of reputation to have in high school, but not a proud one either. Was it better to be known as a South Side yokel with a slack-jawed drawl, or not be known at all? Hard to say.
I bring this up because this odd speech pattern was a memorable part of my otherwise-forgettable high school career. That part stood out, and for better or worse, it stuck in people’s minds. For all of those stories about the various sins of my youth, the rumors of stolen cars, vandalism, and other local unsolved crimes, this one little quirk became indelibly associated with me.
Now consider this on the written page. Anything we want to tag to our character, we do through words. All our visual cues, all the behaviors and mannerisms have to be specifically brought up to direct the reader. However, our character’s way of speaking comes out in dialogue every time, whether we like it or not. And this creates an opportunity for the writer to give that character a unique, memorable quality every time they speak without breaking from the story flow.
One of the great missteps of storytelling is when the narrating voice sounds like the voice of all the characters. Technically, it is not wrong. A reader should be able to tell the difference between narration and dialogue without any special prompts. However, without variation, the characters have a difficult time rising up from the narrative voice.
There are simple ways to make a character’s voice stand out, but if they are applied without context, they feel obvious and clumsy. If the character has an accent, a drawl, a regional twang to their words, then that can showcase a character. However, if that manner of speaking serves no other purpose than to separate the character from the others, it could feel forced and unnatural. Anything that sets the character’s voice apart from the rest should also contribute to our understanding of the character.
Think of the most obvious stand-out tool used to define a character: The catch phrase. These are popular not because they can fit on bumper stickers and create free promotion, but because the character with that phrase now stands above the rest. Now, not every character needs to have their defining phrase or their marketable saying. However, a character with that regular, predictable word or phrase, can also show part of their personality.
Most of my friends frequently debate things – sometimes too much. However, one of them does not like getting into all of that back-and-forth, because in his opinion, nothing gets done and it wastes a lot of time. So whenever some topic starts drifting toward a potential debate, he will shut it down with, “Whatever.” One word that says he has no interest in this. And yes, that one word is basically his catch phrase. Is it worth a bumper sticker? Not one that I’d buy. However, when that one word shows up in dialogue, we are instantly reminded of that character’s lack of interest in debating and his assertiveness in changing the subject. At that point, he rises above the others.
Another quick little tool that makes voice pop out is habitual words or patterns, which can be applied in a simple, rule-based manner. How many people do you know who start off sentences with words such as like, well, basically, or some other grammatical filler? Do they close sentences with “or maybe not” or “I’m just saying”? Do they slip into these habits in response to questions? This is stand-out voice material, and we can apply it through a simple rule. The writer can remind themselves that whenever the character has to answer a question, start and end the answer with their usual filler. By following rules like that, the character becomes a unique element.
Whatever tools you use for making one character stand out, they only work if they are used with purpose and consistency. If a character throws around five-syllable words when a simple one will do, make sure that it matches with their personality and need to show off their big vocabulary, and use it whenever possible. If someone likes placing Shakespeare quotes in everyday dialogue, make sure the reader knows the character is well-read and keep a stack of usable phrases in easy reach. Once the purpose is clear and the usage is consistent, the character will stand out.
As for me, I finally kicked the bad habits of my South Side drawl. However, my next post will talk about my other bad habits, and how I used those to my advantage in the narrative voice.