Speaking In Many Voices

Speaking In Many Voices

When I’m dictating my novels, which has been the case over the past few days because my hands decided to die completely for a while, I’m hyper-aware of things I might not notice when I’m typing. For a start, I’m suddenly very conscious of all the names I don’t know how to pronounce … and I sincerely regret making so many characters Irish. THE PRONUNCIATION MAKES NO SENSE.

But it’s also quite helpful when I’m trying to gauge ‘voice’ and make my narrators seem unique. My current project is a second draft of the first Death and Fairies book, and is written in first person with four narrators. (The first draft only had three narrators, but I decided that was too limited, and including a fourth has so far been a great decision.) The biggest challenge about first person switching is making it sound like different people are telling the story.

Of course, that’s not going to be solely in writing style. I have a character who can feel other people’s emotions, so he picks up on those and states them rather than looking for clues in their body language. I have one character who is incredibly negative and gloomy, and tends to assume the worst about everything. I have characters who have lived in different places and therefore use different cultural references.

But there’s a lot of grammar in it too. Because, hey, I’m a word nerd.

I took English Language as an ‘enrichment’ option last year, and we talked a lot about using dialect. I did a project on use of regional dialect in literature to denote social class and education, and the prejudices associated with it, and I like using elements of what I learned within my writing.

Some of them I didn’t entirely realise were there until I started dictating, and others I decided to draw out and emphasise as soon as I noticed them.

My first narrator – that is to say, the character who narrates the first chapter – is Irial. To briefly explain, Irial is a gifted human who went to live among the fairies a long time ago, and he’s now an outlaw. He constantly refers to the fairies as the sidhe, differentiating himself from them. He uses the most Irish words of anybody. (Note: some of these words are not actually Irish. Some of them are Old Irish. Some of them are made up.) He drives me absolutely mad when I’m dictating, but it also tells me a lot about him – that he’s separating himself from the people he’s talking about.

I wish he could name creatures something I actually know how to pronounce.
I wish he could name creatures something I actually know how to pronounce.

Irial has a very colloquial style, and uses contractions all over the place. In many ways, he probably sounds the most like I do. He frequently contracts the word would or could, so I’ll often use “I’d” or “he’d” in Irial’s narration. It’s the same for negatives: instead of “I wouldn’t” he usually says “I’d not”.

The second narrator who is introduced is Alex. He’s a fairy, but still something of an outcast in their society. He’ll pick up on whether they’re a Courtier (a servant of the king) or a Commoner (fairly self-explanatory), and he’ll differentiate himself from “humans” as well. He uses a handful of Irish words, but none so many as Irial.

Again, he has a fairly colloquial style, but he contracts his words differently. He doesn’t contract would or could the way Irial does, so he’ll be the one to say “I wouldn’t” instead of “I’d not”. Where Irial would say “I’d had”, Alex will be the one to have “I had had”, even if that’s one of the English language’s more ridiculous phrases.

Alex is the gloomy narrator, in case you hadn't noticed.
Alex is the gloomy narrator, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Then there’s Aifa. Aifa is a Courtier, and more than that – she’s the king’s daughter. Because of her high social class and influential position, Aifa uses incredibly formal language like the others in the Court. Most of them never use contractions, and they’d be more likely to say, “I know not,” than “I don’t know.” Aifa is slightly more relaxed in her language because of her friendship with Irial and his influence on her, but she has a far more formal style.

My final narrator, Calla, hasn’t started narrating in the second draft yet, because she’s introduced much later, so I can’t tell you a great deal about her style. I pitched it, in the previous draft, as something slightly more formal than Alex or Irial but a lot more colloquial than Aifa, but I may reconsider that.

Other characters who don’t narrate are just as interesting to consider. My character Cormac was originally a Commoner, but joined the Court. He uses their way of speaking, and is incredibly formal. In my general life, I follow the policy of “never use a long word when you can use a short one”, but I have to suspend that when I’m writing dialogue for Cormac (or, in the later books, narration). He likes to show off and emphasise his social standing.

At the same time, somewhere deep inside he’s still a Commoner. We don’t see it in book one, but if things progress as they originally did in the last three books (for those who are confused: I wrote books 6-8 first and then went back to the beginning), there are moments when that breaks through and we hear him use contractions. Shock horror!

Don't tell anyone, but this is actually from an old draft of book six (Cormac hasn't appeared much in book one so far). It stops in the middle of a sentence because, you know, spoilers and that.
Don’t tell anyone, but this is actually from an old draft of book six (Cormac hasn’t appeared much in book one so far). It stops in the middle of a sentence because, you know, spoilers and that.

Maybe it’s because I studied English Language, but I find it fascinating to play with dialect and to create an idiolect for each of my characters that’s unique to them. It helps to ground me in their voice and to remind me who I’m writing, even if it’s subtle enough that my readers won’t pick up on it.

Except now they will, because I’ve pointed it out, but you know what I meant.

If you’re a writer, how do you use language and idiolect to create the ‘voice’ of your characters? And if you’re a reader, how much do you notice whether the characters sound different?

14 thoughts on “Speaking In Many Voices

  1. I have one character who is essentially nobility, but has spent most of her life trying to blend in and so contracts everything automatically to seem common. My second main character of that novel /never/ uses contractions, in narrative or dialogue, because of her childhood and how she was raised. In the same book, there’s a character who speaks in short, one-clause sentences because she isn’t communicating in her first language. I have to keep all these things in mind when writing each of them. I find it fascinating to, as you say, create an idiolect for each one so that if I were to remove dialogue rates, in theory you would know who was speaking (or that’s the aim, anyway.)

    1. Yeah — I once experimented by sending my betas an excerpt from different chapters that didn’t use names and asking who they thought was narrating, which highlighted which characters were the most and least distinctive. :)

      It looks like we have some similar ideas. Contractions make a HUGE difference in how a character comes across.

  2. I mainly narrator by one person, so this hasn’t really come up for me a lot…I mean, I try to make my characters voices sound different anyway (depending on education, culture and styles) buuut making them be different isn’t too much atm. My fantasy had someone who spoke in slang, and another who spoke in stilted and educated sentences and another who didn’t speak at all (EASIEST dialogue…just…silence). x)

    1. Easiest and hardest because you somehow have to portray their thoughts and emotions without using words. It’d be easy if they met my character Irial, since he can feel emotions! Ha ha :)

  3. I’d loved to have been given the option of English Language, since it sounds like it benefited you very much.
    Voice is one of the things I find the most difficult when writing – whilst this might stem from an inability to do teen voice, that shouldn’t be so much of a problem with 20-year-old characters. Voice is simply– blah.
    In my style, like you, I tend to use or withhold contractions depending on a character’s class. The voice in dialogue I find easy to work with, but, since I write in third person, my difficulty arises in the prose…especially concerning contractions. Gah.

    1. Our school encourages an “enrichment” option in year twelve which is just two lessons per week. We loosely followed the AS syllabus, although not to the point of doing the exam. So that’s why I studied it. (They dropped that option now — they offer Creative Writing instead. I was kind of irritated that my year didn’t get that? But as you say, English Language was useful.)
      Third person IS harder. I write more often in first person, but The Quiet Ones is written in 3rd, and I basically did it the same way I do first person, since it was closely following one character. I just had to make it sound like her. But I work much harder on voice for 1st person narratives.

        1. Oh, definitely; as soon as you take away any sort of visual, you have to rely so much on other descriptors. And it’s even harder if the narrator has always been blind, rather than it being recent, as they don’t even have the visual images to rely on as a reference point. Somebody who had lost their sight could at least say, “I imagined they looked something like trees, but they felt like they were probably only as tall as me,” whereas someone who had always been blind wouldn’t know what a tree looked like in the first place. At the same time, writing outside your comfort zone not only creates more diverse stories, but also helps you grow as a writer. (Though I imagine you have to interpret “Show Don’t Tell” a little differently.)

          1. This character at least has only been blind for a few years. Show don’t tell is a bit tricky. There’s lots of “I could feel the wind off her hand” sort of thing. I have to say though, it has definitely helped me grow as a writer.

  4. I write in italian, and let me tell you — it is much more difficult to differentiate the way characters talk in my language. Contractions don’t exist, so the difference is made by all the other words. We still can use dialect or a slang of some sort, but it’s still hard to make voices different. The point you made about contractions was really interesting, and I found myself screaming “WHY DON’T WE HAVE THEM IN OUR LANGUAGE???” at my laptop. Ok, not really, but you get the point.

    With the unfinished second draft of my first unfinished novel everyone spoke in the same exact way. It seemed normal to me then, but now I can’t read it and not cringe.
    There are minor differences; for example Logan, one of the narrators, is pessimistic and wry. You know it’s him talking because he often makes witty remarks about everything and everyone and always thinks of himself as a third wheel. That aside, it’s not the way he talks that differentiates him from Matheus (his love interest and fellow protagonist): it’s what they say. It kinda makes sense to me, but I get how characters should be different in how they talk.

    Now I’m onto the first draft of my new project and I had a strange idea to separate the two narrators; one point of view is told in first person — the other in second person. I know it may upset people (I’ve heard all sorts of complaints about the use of second person in Sally Green’s debut novel! And she’d used it for fifteen pages!), but it’s very fun to write, albeit difficult. But I really love writing in second person, and as something I’ve never done before I’m really enjoying it.

    PS: sorry for my English — it’s not my first language.

    1. Your English is excellent, far better than my Italian. I studied it for four years and all I can say is “Sono il solo investigatore consulenza nel mondo” and I’m not sure that’s very useful, ha ha.

      I can see why it would be difficult. It’s true that content is just as important as tone, but it’s hard without tone to emphasise it. :)

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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