When you write dialogue, when you write dramatic monologues, when you write in first person, your character must have his own voice.
Voice is in part the distinct vocabulary, grammatical tendencies and spoken patterns which are unique to your character. A linguist would call this his idiolect.
Voice’s other part is made up of the interests and obsessions of your character: what sort of things they notice about the world, how they interpret them in relation to their previous experiences, and what emotional colouring they give events. We might call this perspective.
Firstly, a story: I am English, middle class, and I studied at Oxford. When I worked in a supermarket cafe in inner-city Cardiff (Wales) I’d get customers who would say, after half a minute’s banter about their breakfast at the till, “hang on, you’re too clever to be working here!” They didn’t say this because I had told them my life story, or discussed with them the philosophy of Shelley’s Ode to Liberty, because I hadn’t. After this happened a few times I started asking “are you just saying that because I’m English?” “It’s not just that,” they’d reply, “you use long words too.” Their assumption was absolutely right of course; but it was made purely based on my idiolect.
Go to a café or sit on a bus. Eavesdrop. How do other people speak? If you were going to say the same thing they’re saying, would you choose those words in that order? What do you notice about the way other people say things that’s different from the way you say things? Why do you think these differences come about?
Things that influence a person’s grammar and vocabulary include:
Education – the more education a person has, the larger and more polysyllabic their vocabulary. It will also involve more abstract and technical terms.
Job – every job (or area of study) involves technical and specialist terms known as “jargon”. Because I teach GCSE English I need to use lit-lang, WJEC, controlled assessment, and mark scheme regularly. When I worked in a cafe it was health and safety, chiller, point of sale, and PPE. For my English degree Restoration, Modernism, ibid and epic were words I could not afford to misunderstand.
Social class – Closely related to education and job, but not identical. A character may defiantly display their class, or fight against it. A significant influence during childhood, even if he moves in different spheres later on he may not be able to shake off his origins. The lower a character’s class, the more non-standard grammar he’ll use, and the more dialect terms he is likely to know.
A working class character may always use “was” for “were” or vice versa. He might say “by here” instead of “over here”, “happen” for “perhaps”, “that’ll learn him” for “that’ll teach him”. You can be clever with this: if a character wants to hide his low origins, he might have obliterated all signs bar one phrase which gives him away; if a middle class character wants to fit in, he might adopt enough slang, but be unable to use grammar he knows is “wrong”.
Age – Language evolves over time. Words fall in and out of fashion and slang terms come and go. Non-standard English becomes less acceptable the older you get: as a child it is inevitable; as a teenager it’s rebellious; as an adult it’s inappropriate. By old age many (though not all) people decide they are too old to learn new tricks.
Slang – Besides dialect, each group of friends, or peers, or family members, or people who just hang together too much, will develop its own specialist vocabulary. Internet slang includes “lol”, “troll” and “tweet”. Oxford slang includes “bop” (party), “collections” (exams), and “scout” (cleaner). Just like real people, a character may use different slang sets when talking to different listeners. Sometimes they’ll do this because they know that their companion will understand; but sometimes they do it because they want is to emphasise how different they and their listener are.
Characters’ perspectives will vary for many of the same reasons that affect their idiolect.
· An educated person might respond to an emotive news story in a tabloid critically, and renounce it over the breakfast table. A less well educated person might be outraged and let their family know in no uncertain terms that these days everyone wants something for nothing.
· A carpenter will look at a forest in a very different way from a historian. The former may identify the wood and its quality, and know that it’d be fine for fences but no good for a relief work on a wardrobe. The historian might muse upon the age of the forest, which earl owned it in the thirteenth century, what the earl used it for, and how he went about keeping his peasants downtrodden.
· A working class person might see a restaurant as nicely done up and the food fancy but a bit weird. A middle class person might, in the same restaurant, think the wallpaper was tasteless and the mussels overcooked.
· Older people tend to know and understand a lot more than younger people, but be less open to learning new things or adjusting their ideas. A 45 year old may show sympathy for a relative with dementia, patiently explaining, keeping them comfortable, tolerating mood swings. A thirteen year old might be impatient, might lose it every time the relative gets the wrong name, might say “I’ve already told you” instead of explaining, might shout and upset the relative more.
But these are all generalisations. The most important influences on a character’s perspective are the personality traits that make your him an individual.
Shy characters will say much less than very confident characters, and may choose their words with more care. Intelligent characters will have a different sense of humour from less intelligent characters. Insensitive characters will ask awkward questions or say hurtful things.
Characters might stutter, repeat themselves, always ask questions, never converse but only deliver monologues, laugh at their own jokes, pun cringe-makingly. They might compliment everyone they meet, or only ever talk about themselves, they might tell everyone at tedious length about their latest obsession, or divulge intimate secrets about their love life to virtual strangers, or moan incessantly, or moralise at every opportunity.
They might be deadpan or animated, they might describe everything in extensive sensory detail, they might communicate purely in grunts and one-word answers. They might use short, to-the-point sentences, or find themselves wandering off in such strange directions that they can’t remember where they started. They might be pompous or full of self-doubt. They might speak as if they know everything or hedge every sentence with “I think” or “in my opinion” or “but that’s just me”. I cannot possibly create an exhaustive list.
There are two ways to deal with voice. The first is to think about your character, get to know them, and then think about what sort of voice they would have. The second is to start with a strong voice, and follow it back to the source to see what sort of character you’re dealing with. Both work.
Crucially, as you’re writing, imagine every line aloud in your head. Do you believe your character would really say it that way? If not, keep looking for the right words.