Giving your characters their voice
Making your characters sound authentic
One of the wonderful things about reading is hearing the characters' voices in your head. The experience of every reader will be different, which can be a challenge for those adapting a popular novel for screen or radio, but aside from that, this unrivalled intimacy with a character is why readers are so passionate.
However, before a character lands on the page they belong to the writer, and it is up to them to steer the reader towards the way that the character sounds in the author's head.
Why is character voice important?
Last year, I read a well-regarded debut novel that I was given at a book festival. The story was thought-provoking, the characters interesting and the plot nice and twisty. But one thing pulled me out of the novel - the characters all sounded the same!
The characters in the book ranged from posh, cultured barristers, to inner-London teenagers all with different upbringings from a range of social classes and ethnic backgrounds. But they all spoke in the same way that the author does (I have heard them give a talk). I thought that was a real shame.
Giving each character their own voice is important. Before I start to write a person, I try to picture them in my head, and 'listen' to them speaking. After almost ten years of writing the DCI Warren Jones series, I can see most of the regular team in my mind's eye and so when they speak I have a feel for how they would sound. However, each book also has a new collection of characters, each with their own way of speaking.
This doesn't have to be arduous.
In my current work in progress, I have a character that is a hardened thief, with several spells of prison behind him and a history of violence. He's a skinny, rat-faced man, from eastern England, and frankly, he's an arrogant git who speaks with a sneer; he's seen it all before and (thinks) he knows what the consequences will be, and he's not that bothered.
A different character is recently bereaved. He's never been in trouble with the police, he's scared, he's weary and he's upset. These two men are similar ages, from the same region of England, so their dialect is the same. But they sound different.
Giving your characters their voice.
There are three broad ways that a writer can define their character's voice.
In the narrative
First of all, you can tell the reader what they sound like! A bit of descriptive text when a character is introduced is absolutely fine.
The man's Merseyside accent had softened somewhat from his years living in the south, but Warren could still hear traces of it in the vowels.
The woman mumbled her assent, her voice thick with shame.
I came very close to messing this up a couple of years ago. All of my full-length novels have been recorded for audiobooks, narrated by the brilliant Malk Williams. He did the first four in the summer of 2018, and since then has read each summer's book a couple of months after it has been released as an ebook. When preparing for recording, he often contacts me to clarify things such as my preferred pronunciation for names etc.
This is the message he sent me as he started preparing to record Forgive Me Father in the summer of 2019:
"You waited until page 169 of the 5th book in the series to mention that DS Hutchinson is a Geordie!!! ... In other news, Hutch has really lost his accent since moving to the home counties!"
That's 100% on me! DS Hutchinson has always been from Newcastle in my head, but I never actually communicated this to any of the readers until book 5. Since then, I have taken to mentioning that Hutch has lived in eastern England for so long he's lost his accent - until he's had a few pints, or he's watching Newcastle United play :-)
In their unspoken thoughts
This of course depends on the point of view that the story is being told from. For first and second person, this comes naturally. You are literally living in the character's head, and so the same rules apply as for dialogue (below); it's more like a conversation.
For third person, it depends on the context. And of course, you may also have to consider different voices for different characters.
Some will be in the form of inner dialogue (I'm not being subtle here!):
Toby ran towards Hamish. "Is that a claymore?" he asked himself.
"That wee man'll never take me," thought Hamish, preparing to remove Toby's head from his shoulders.
Some will be more external.
Claire looked down the menu. So many choices; she didn't even know what half the dishes were. She stole a glance towards Jenny.
"I'll have the chicken dopiaza, with pilau rice and a garlic Naan," said Jenny, barely even looking at the laminated card.
"Sounds great, I'll have the same," said Claire, forcing a note of confidence into her voice. She hoped it wouldn't be too hot, she didn't like spicy food.
Hopefully, it is clear in this example that Claire is nervous and unsure of herself, perhaps eager to please, whilst Jenny is more confident.
In their spoken dialogue
This is perhaps the trickiest to get right, and the one which the novel that I mentioned at the beginning failed at.
Dialect is the key to this. How would your characters speak? If you are unsure, listen to people from that region speaking on YouTube.
The most important thing is to avoid really obvious errors. For example, 'Mum' is commonly used throughout most of southern England. However 'Mam' is used in the north. 'Mom' is usually seen as an Americanism, but is actually quite normal in Birmingham (central England), but not Coventry, just a few miles down the road. Without sliding into parody and stereotype (Scots do not say 'Och Aye' every sentence, and Scousers only tell you to 'calm down, calm down!' if you are really upset or auditioning for Harry Enfield), try and slip in the odd word or phrase to add a little texture to the person's spoken communication.
However, it is easy to over do it. Unless it's important for the narrative, try not to make the dialogue incomprehensible to most of your readers. A famous author recently came in for some criticism when the dialogue in their book was too heavy-handed. They chose to render entire tracts of conversation in a 'working class' dialogue, dropping Hs, shortening words, skipping consonants etc, until it was a mess of randomly-placed apostrophes and the reader found themselves going back over it repeatedly to try and parse what they were saying. Dare I say that should have been flagged by an editor?
Similarly, foreign words are an excellent way of bringing a character to life, but again it can be a bit of a tightrope. I have read most of Tom Clancy's works and he and the continuation authors have many foreign characters. By the end of the book, I tend to recognise the Russian words for please, thank you, hello and goodbye, plus a couple of curse words, but don't feel like I have just had an advanced language class!
An important caveat to this concerns the situation your character is in. Most of us consciously, or subconsciously, adjust the way we speak to match the audience we are talking to. I speak differently to a class of schoolkids than I do in the staffroom, or at home. I also speak differently when I am with my family and friends in the West Midlands than I do when with my partner's family in East London or Essex. This can be especially pronounced for people that work in a environment with colleagues and clients that are largely different to their own background. Perhaps consider this.
With all of that said, I hope you find this useful. Don't get too stressed, and if you are unsure, ask beta readers to focus on that as they read. They'll know if it sounds inauthentic or doesn't feel right.
As always, feel free to comment and share, either here or on social media.
All the best,
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.