Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hearing Voices

We do, don't we?
The character's voice.
May be one of the hardest things to do well.
Make the character's voice singular, individual and fitting; as well as reinforce and round the character.
There are a number of ways.
Off the top of my head now, there's the sentence construction device.
Yoda. The inverted syntax which often indicates the language spoken is not the character's mother tongue. Lackey does syntax well in Exile's Valor for the character Alberich.
I remember a news clipping a few years back quoting a French policeman about some particularly noxious crime involving children, where he said "It is, you understand, an affair of the most horrible."
If you have a non-English character, try putting his dialogue in the native tongue and then translate it more or less literally. The construction comes across much better than the tired "M'sieur, ze crime, is , 'ow you say it..."
And there's the dialect form, which should be used sparingly. Please. Readers tend to resent mumbling phoenetically over paras and paras of thick dialect. And phoenetics don't work too well on celtic.
Whic reminds me of a character with the habit of using vernacular constructions as an internal joke. "Quotes" don't always come across, b'y.
The use, hither and yon of the occasional word peculiar to the ethnicity of the character usually works quite nicely though. An endearment, "Mi corizon, mi vida" or an expression of distaste or a curse. Or simply a word they do not bother to adjust to the second language, but is similar in both, such as "difficile", since I'm on a French kick here.
That usage works to provide a verbal insight outside any ethnic considerations. Everyone has certain pet phrases which they tend to trot out. I have a character who has the reprehensible habit of saying "Bloody hell," to himself.
The repetitive phrase, key word, can provide humor too.
An indecisive character might preface each statement with something like "I don't know but..." or an uneducated one, "I donno." Also, something like "well, you know, like, totally," usually labels a sub-cultural group - age group or social class.
"Begorrah" however, is passe.
Have seen an entire social class, the scene and the minor character's reactions displayed by the clever choice of a single word. Little Rosamond wanted to see "the pleeceman."
And I know how I would label a character who calls a German Shepherd a "p'licedog" as a breed, and expect monosyllabics.
Show, not tell. Rhythms and patterns of speech. Hardest when the characters are of the same group, background or class. Hardest when they are stating facts and not emotion.
I have meandered superficially here.

As an aside, someday I hope to see a certain Shakespearian play done with a jiving/rapping black character who says, "Why man, he doth be-stride the narrow world, like a co-los-sus."

18 comments:

Tsavo Leone said...

"... Personally speaking, I hate writing and tagging dialogue. It's not so much the 'he said, she said' bit, it's more trying to isolate the individual voices and keep them in character..."

I wrote that on MG's blog in response to her post re: dialogue (and there was third post on the same subject that very day!).

For my main WiP I found the best way to get round this problem was to pre-cast actors/actresses for the roles. In that way I not only heard their voices, I also got a sense of their rythmn. I do this due to the number of characters I have to deal with: one such scene 'contains' Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Carlyle, Oded Fehr and Michael Jai White alongside my principle character; another scene 'contains' Anthony Hopkins, Tom Noonan, Richard O'Brien and Brian Blessed as well as the prinicple character; elsewhere we have Bruce Campbell, Michael Wincott, David Hyde Pearce and John Glover rubbing shoulders with Charles Dance... (there isn't a casting agent on the face of the planet who could put that lot together!)

That's not to say that I'm not doing any real work in terms of how I work the scenes, it's simply that I can allow my own recollections of those individuals to inform their dialogue to a certain extent and instead focus on the story I'm telling and the part these characters have to play within that story.

Some people seem appalled by this approach, but as I'm having to find a reasonably unique voice for roughly thirty characters it helps me no end if I have something I can refer to. And all things considered, I'll use every trick in the book if I think the story will benefit from it.

(For the record, it's nothing like anything you might read if you were to take a look at my blog... I think).

M. G. Tarquini said...

"It is, you understand, an affair of the most horrible."

I love that, Bernita. Unfortunately even that can become farcical unless handled with care.

I'm not a fan of vernacular in writing. When I see something that tries to show southern speech, or appalachian speech that drops the 'g' off the end of 'ing' words and replaces it with an apostrophe, I put the book down. The exception is a character that is minor and doesn't talk much and the book otherwise well-regarded.

Use of the word 'caint' for 'can't' is another example. Drives me nuts because it looks like an affectation.

A repeat of a certain phrase has to be handled with care, or it becomes annoying, even if one is going for humor. At The Bunions we torture each other with 'favorite phrase' alerts. We make each other drop them. Same goes for favorite lines, favorite paragraphs and favorite chapters. It's the Sam Johnson approach.

So, M.G., how do you think dialogue should be handled? Exactly like you said in the example of the Frenchman. I'm also fine if a character says, 'policeman' and the MC or narrator or somebody mentions, 'she pronounced it 'pleeceman', an odd combination with her Chanel suit and Hermes scarf.' From there on out, I'll know she's pronouncing it wrong, but I'd go nuts reading pleeceman for policeman for 300 pages.

Good post, Bernita.

Bernita said...

Appalled?
Why?
Seems like an excellent method to me.
And a big improvement over eavesdropping on subways, parties, etc.
Having trouble with a voice, then haul out the DVD's or turn on the TV.

Bernita said...

The beauty of the "pleeceman", M.G., is that it was used precisely once. A Heyer murder mystery, if memory serves.It only needed once.
And perhaps therein lies the lesson, sometimes a single word can set up the entire thing.
And thank you.

Robyn said...

Tsavo, I pre-cast the characters in my stories, too.

A favorite book series of mine was the old Nero Wolfe mysteries. Nero had a habit of expressing disbelief or disgust with "Pfui." If that preceded a sentence, I knew he was speaking and what he thought of the situation.

And NO MORE PHONETICS. Gad. If I read one more westerner who says, "Hit ain't nuthin, ya purty lil' thing" I will ram sharp pointy objects into my eyeballs.

Bernita said...

I like the Nero Wolfe series.
Good re-reads.

Candice Gilmer said...

I like the idea of "casting" characters. I don't do that, exactly, but I SEE them in my head, and I HEAR the way they speak.

For me, it's about the little movie in my brain.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Good post Bernita.

I do hear voices but until Tsava mentioned it, I never thought of thinking in the frame of an actual person!

Tsavo Leone said...

Ah-ha! My plan comes to fruition! Soon you will all think as I do! (*cackle*)

Bernita said...

~friggin' warlocks~

archer said...

I love the way Dickens uses little turns of phrase and verbal tics, like Detective Bucket's "that's what you are" in Bleak House.

For my money, Tom Wolfe does it better than anyone around. I really love the opening lines of Bonfire of the Vanities, with the mayor (his inflections seem modeled on Ed Koch) shouting down the Harlem hecklers.

And--go ahead and shoot me!--Mark Twain overdoes Jim's phonetics. I know, I know, he does it perfectly, but all of those little apostrophes annoy me. Anyway I get to say that cuz it's my favorite book.

Bernita said...

You can say whatever you want on my blog, Archer.
You have a superb grasp of character voice.
I can HEAR it.
If I were the jealous type I would be spitting out pieces of galvanized roofing nails this minute.
Instead I just get mournful.
Perhaps first person helps in that regard. Rex Stout does Archie Goodwin et sec well. Reminds me a little.
You even manage to use the F-word in such a way as to not offend a pearl clutcher as myself.
Like Tsavo, and others here, disgustingly brilliant.
Go read, people, even if it's not your thing.

archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AE Rought said...

My characters are so vivid in my mind that their dialouge just flows. It might not always be perfect, but it's scary sometimes how things flow from the fingertips up onto the screen.

I try to stay away from phonetics, unless I am typing phonetic cursing in Chinese from Firefly in my LJ.

And, Tsavo, I use Oded too. :P

Tsavo Leone said...

Bernita, I may have to put you on a retainer as my publicist at this rate.

Yours is a beautiful voice too, and most poetic. And you know that I'm not alone in thinking this.

For the record, why do I get the feeling that AE's use of Oded is nothing like my use of Oded...

Bernita said...

That turned me into butter, Tsavo.
I shall treasure that.

archer said...

Thank you for your very kind remarks, which have made my day.

Some writers can do things without models. I think Saul Bellow wrote King Dhafu out of his head, for instance. But Dickens would not write anything unless he had seen it and heard it. Same with Tom Wolfe.

Whenever I try to write someone or something I haven't actually seen or heard, it doesn't work.

Bernita said...

Your blog's a pleasure, Archer.

'Course, it helps that I married one.