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.
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.
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!
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?