Different Voices

Your characters suffer from a universal limitation. They all spring from inside you. They tend to sound alike, because you’re the one who is thinking up all the things they are saying. This muddle is exacerbated by the fact that dialogue, while easy to write, is usually the least distinctive element of your narrative. Why is that? In dialogue you need to capture the cadence of the way people speak. Otherwise, conversations can sound artificial, labored. What people say, on paper, usually sounds like what a lot of people might say.

So, how do you make your characters speak in unique ways? As with other elements of building a compelling character, your difficulty probably stems from the fact that you are writing about them from the outside. They’re all sound like you because you are dictating—the puppet master—how they should talk.

Dialogue needs to be spoken from the inside. Once you grasp that simple principle, separating out voices becomes one more function of creating vivid personalities. Let’s take the example of a boy and girl that have fallen in love in New York City. What are the most outstanding characteristics of the boyfriend? First, let’s say he hails from Ohio. As any Easterner can tell you, people from the Midwest are so nice. He’s lived in New York for three years. Now ask yourself: what are the sorts of things you would talk about when you’ve lived there for (only) three years?

Now let’s consider the girlfriend. She’s from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, streetwise but shy. What is her frame of reference? She’s lived in New York all her life, so she’s going to complain about all its irritations. That’s how being cooped up in a city feels. Maybe add in that her conversations are sprinkled with scientific references, because that’s what she studied in school. Maybe she can’t wait for the Science section in the Times to come out on Tuesday.

Are these two characters going to talk differently? They will if you keep in mind, as you begin every conversation between them, where they’re coming from. Once you get a feel for operating from inside their head, your characters are going to talk to you first—in their own voice. Then just write down what they say.

Exercise: The most straightforward difference between two characters is: one’s an extrovert and the other’s an introvert. How do extroverts talk? You can start with the premise that they do their thinking out loud. They’ll do a lot of announcing. An introvert will tend to stumble more aloud. They will blurt out something, then have to correct themselves halfway through, or want to correct themselves because they are thoughtful enough to desire the right nuance. Try it: listen to people talk, and you’ll see the difference right away.

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @2019, John Paine

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