I’ve heard it said many times that it is vital for a starting author to cultivate their position in the authorial community. Frequent forums, comment and support blogs, and provide what support you can for other starting authors, those were watchwords. Some even would take it to the unfortunate (and unethical) extreme of suppressing negative reviews or inflating them into positive reviews. That, though, is the extreme, and there’s nothing wrong with the rest of it. In fact, taking our own experiences with the art of writing and giving it to others is a way for all of us to improve our craft.
Writing is like any other art form in that it has its accepted styles, its rules of composition, and, among all those rules, the emphasis to push beyond those boundaries to stake a claim on a unique style all one’s own. This can leave an author in a difficult situation, tossed between the stylistic conventions of old, codified for a reason, and the desire to be revolutionary in his/her writing. So what do you do? Is there a point where your press against the boundaries of style and formatting cease being unique and start being simply obfuscating?
People have different ways of speaking. Yes, I know this is the most shocking revelation of 2015, but bear with me a moment. This may be an obvious statement, but it doesn’t always get translated properly to the written page. It’s often impressed on starting writers to maintain proper grammar throughout their work. Now, this advice is meant specifically for the non-dialogue segments but it’s very easy to take that too far and apply it to the dialogue as well. Complicate that with the fact that sometimes we writers fall into a rut, allowing our own speech patterns to color every character in the book until, subconsciously, we’ve made them all speak with the same voice.
The problems with this should be as obvious as my opening statement. Speech patterns and vocabulary can provide as many points of characterization as any other facet of a character, maybe more than some. Remember, speech is our primary form of communication and it’s one of our most valuable tools for learning about our fellow man. It’s not just the actual words we say, but how we say them, our mannerisms, and our priorities of communication.
Now, obviously, minor characters might be a bit generic in terms of dialogue and that’s acceptable (though if they speak in a dialect that is real or established in the story, they had better use it). However, if you have, say, the protagonist and antagonist in a conversation, you had better be able to tell them apart without dialogue tags!
In fact, thinking about it, you could use that as a bit of soft test to see if you have established a proper voice for major characters. Write a scene of them in a long conversation, then drop the dialogue tags or any clear identifiers after the first exchange. If you or your beta readers or whoever can tell the speakers apart, then you’re fine. If not, well, you might need to work to establish more of a voice for them.
However you decide to go about it, never stray from the importance of character voice. It is one of the key ways you can bring your characters to life and one of the best ways to deepen the characterization of them. If you ignore it, don’t be surprised when you loose readers as they complain about cardboard characters and hard-to-follow dialogue scenes.
What do you think? Do you have any other tips or tests to help sort character voices? Leave them in the comments below! Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!