Wednesday, August 08, 2007

First Contact

The Stranger,
Frederic Remington,
oil on canvas, 1908.


Engage the senses, they say.


We do that.

Birds tweetle, engines roar-le, females sigh-le.

And we also introduce the aural component in judicious dialogue tags and careful similes.

But whether our characters whisper or weedle, how often do we describe the character's voice itself? Precisely, the character of that voice?

A very good question raised by Seeley in a recent post.

And do we do it without recourse to the careless shorthand of cliche?

I'm rather tired of whiskey voices, velvet voices and silken voices.

Also, the nasal voices, whining voices and chalkboard voices found in unattractive and minor characters.

Consciously or not, we deduce a lot about people purely by the sound and effect of their voices. Grammar, accent, style are subsequent. The silver-tongue is not a myth. Neither is the bene gesserit weirding way.

To approximate a reader's reaction, imagine a voice out of the darkness. First contact.

Halloo the camp.


Jon M said...

I wrestle with cackles and screeches.

Bernita said...

I've always been fond of "cackles" in a narrative description, Jon.
But is the voice itself a "cackling voice?"

takoda said...

I love this post--yet again!!

I think if we are not judgmental (he / she shouldn't or wouldn't say or do such a thing) then a strong and authentic voice comes through. As writers, we can become the character as if in a play. I think POV choices also help to determine voice.

My problem in writing isn't voice. It's writing rich, sensory detail.

When I get a chance, I'm going to read Seely.


Sela Carsen said...

“Mr. Burbank,” he said, his Down East accent thick as winter fog. “Are you all right?”

“What the hell?” Ronan’s voice was rough and harsh with the abuse it had taken.

Funny, though. I often describe my hero's voice, but rarely my heroine's. Hmmm. Something to work on. Oh, the above is from my next release.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Chris. Perhaps I didn't make it very clear. I don't mean the writer's 'voice', or even emotional modulations, but the sound of the character's basic voice.
Seeley explains it better.

Thank you, Sela, and appropriate congratulations.
The best I've managed is "a voice like a dark god."

Robyn said...

I described one of my heroes as having a "voice that had mileage."

I read a story that had the heroine's voice "like crisp green apples." I had to admit I couldn't quite wrap my imagination around that one!

Bernita said...

"a voice that had mileage..."
I like that, Robyn. Oil-burning exhaust and all.
I also like the second one. An arresting synesthesistic image.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've been taking the simplistic approach and trying to let the dialogue speak for itself.

But sometimes you do have to describe how it sounds. I rely on gravelly, brisk, clipped... mostly I focus on tone, especially when it differs from the usual. If it's internalized from the POV's standpoint, usually he is wishing his voice sounded steadier, or sometimes it's too high-pitched, indicating panic. I think most people only notice their own voice when it will betray their feelings.

raine said...

I always struggle with this. Difficult to think of non-cliched ways of describing a voice. Now I'm thinking about it, and will have to do better.
Liking the examples here--and ohhh, love that painting.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cool. I fear I'm heavy on the whiskey voices. Is there a beer voice? This is good food for thought.

Bernita said...

I agree, SS.
Sometimes it is necessary or natural. People do notice others' voices.
In first person, re your example, I've used "...I asked, trying not to bleat."

Raine, sometimes it seems that all the right words have been used up.
The painting: one is almost there!

Drinks are on me, Charles. I've seen "beery voice" used. Malty? Sudsy? Skunky?
A voice that dripped like a beer tap?
I enjoy clever exaggerations in voice description as long as they fit with the personality.

The Anti-Wife said...

Love this post. I talk to lots of people on the phone in my work and it's always interesting to meet them in person, especially when their voice doesn't at all match their looks - i.e. the deep, husky, sexy male voice that belongs to someone who looks like Don Knotts.

spyscribbler said...

LOLOL ... it's true that we deduce a lot by the sound. That's why I avoid the phone as much as possible--bad first impression. My squeaky voice is not as cute as it was when I was younger, LOL!

Bernita said...

Perhaps that's why I'm something of a hermit, Written...

A girlish voice, Spy?
Don't be so sure it creates a bad impression.

takoda said...

Ooops, that's what happens when I speed-read with kids around!

Both of my children have issues with occasional stuttering. So when they were in speech therapy, I read as much as I could. You know, to produce a single sound takes coordination of the brain, lungs, tongue, lips, and vocal chords. Some sounds cause your vocal chords to vibrate; others don't. Try to feel the sound vibrations on your larynx as you say the word 'coffee.' Dissect it, it's fun.

Great thinking post, even if I had it all wrong this morning!

Dave said...

Gilbert Gottfried always makes me laugh when he talks. He does the Aristocrats joke on the DVD of the same name and it doesn't matter what he's saying, it's the tone, timbre, cadence and pitch that's so funny (to put 4 unfunny words to it).

Church Lady said...

I'm now officially "The Church Lady!"


Took my email and web link off my blog profile, per being sufficiently scared by Bernita's post a couple of days ago and generally thinking about it anyway.

Bernita, Please still call me Chris. ;-)

writtenwyrdd said...

I was just rereading today's several thousand words and caught "velvet baritone." I left it in, but recognized the need to find something more novel. Trouble is, I really like that adjective for a voice. Sexxxy.

Today's crop of dialog tags included howled, cackled, purred, snarled and hissed. I do recognize the need to worry about them later, in revision, but for now I let them be placeholders telling me what the mood I am trying to evoke is.

One term I did use that I still love is describing a voice like "he sounded like he'd been gargling rocks."

Dave said...

Mel Torme was known as "The Velvet Fog".