Characterization and Word Choice

One of the gripes I hear most from writers is about the challenge of making characters sound different, i.e. giving them each an individual voice. Let’s explore the subject, shall we?

One way of making your characters sound different is to give them an accent. And this can certainly work, as long as you use their brogue or twang sparingly, like you would spice. Add too much and it becomes distracting gibberish that’s hard to parse out.

The other way is to change their syntax. But don’t go all Jar-Jar on us. One of the best examples of syntax usage is R. M. Meluch’s character Dr. Mo Shah.

Dr. Shah’s voice sounded again from the intercom. “Captain? May I be having a word with you?” Confidentially, Mo Shah’s tone added.

“Oh. These are not being signs of slaughter. These are being medical communications. Physicians conferring with each other, I am believing.”

“He did not pass the drug scan,” Dr. Shah reported.

Farragut pursed his lips. Spoke at last: “What’s he doing?”

“The whole pharmacy,” Mo answered. “And the R&D lab.”

The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1

I pulled the above quotes from one page at the point in the story where Dr. Shah is introduced. We are told that he is a Riverite (to explain the speech pattern) and then the syntax is used to establish that this is how Dr. Shah speaks, but as the conversation goes along, you’ll also see he uses what would be considered more typical syntax. Not every sentence he speaks needs to be marked by his Riverite form of speech. It would become too cumbersome to the reader, and the writer, to come up with increasing complexity.

If you like space opera, this is one of my absolute favorites, and Meluch provides us with not one, but SIX brilliantly entertaining novels filled with some of the best characters you’ll see. I highly recommend Tour of the Merrimack (6 Book Series).

So, what if you don’t want to use syntax and accents for your characters? Let’s say you’ve already got one with an accent and another one that use strange syntax, or maybe that kind of thing is not your forte? Isn’t there an easier way to do this?

One way would be pay attention to how people speak and start taking notes. This is more of a strategic, long-term plan. Also, travel will help expand your horizons here, but that too is a long-term plan, and expensive. You could get some exposure by watching movies with characters that have distinct speech patterns. John Wayne’s speech patterns come to mind. So does Tom Ellis’s Lucifer Morningstar character in Lucifer.

What about now? Like, right now?

Well, my best advice is to look at your writing and ask yourself this question: When I write, whose voice am I using?

Now if you’re scratching your head here, that’s okay. English being what it is, “voice” has a lot of meanings. So, to be clear, I don’t mean speech specifically, even though I am referring to dialogue, in part. By “voice” I mean the whole thing, i.e. everything that goes on a page, including the dialogue.

In writing, there are two types of “voices.” The first is author voice. The second is character voice.

Sometimes the narration is in the author’s voice, like for a story written from an omniscient viewpoint. Everything on the page is the author telling you the story. He may use the character’s voice in dialogue, but everything that is not dialogue, is narrator voice. In author voice, we are told things the character can’t know. We are told things that have not happened yet. We are told what every character in the scene is thinking and feeling. You still need to make the dialogue sound distinct, but otherwise your narration has to stay consistently in author voice.

An example of omniscient narration (not dialogue) might sound like this:

Fred wanted to go get out of town now, but Harry wanted stay. John was sad and pouting in the corner because his parents had been killed. None of the men had any idea of how much worse things were going to get.

The author tells us what the characters want, what they are thinking, what their desires/emotions are. The author tells us exactly why John is sad and pouting. This is not Fred’s “voice” because Fred doesn’t know about John losing his parents. Also, that last sentence tells you that things are about to get worse, i.e. foretelling. Unlike foreshadowing, which is subtle and you don’t realize it was there until later, foretelling tries to build up tension by telling you rather than showing you. It’s part of an omniscient (or retrospective first person) narrator’s toolbox, because he knows how the story will end.

Sometimes the narration is in character voice and it can help your characters “sound” different even when they are not speaking. What do I mean by character voice if I don’t necessarily mean dialogue? I’m talking about using ONLY the words and understanding of the character whose viewpoint we are in. I’m talking about being solidly in your character’s head so you can ground the reader in that character’s perspective.

For example…

I recently critiqued another writer’s work and there was a scene narrated by a child of about eight. The little girl’s narration included describing another character that had just entered the scene, a woman. The description was detailed and precise, but the words used were those of an adult (the author’s to be precise). Any child of eight using THOSE words to describe a woman would make me think the child had been sexually abused or groomed for sex work.

No eight-year-old girl would have chosen those specific words when describing a woman. Now, since it wasn’t the author’s intent to have a sexually abused/groomed child, the phrases needed rewriting. The focus was all wrong (her breasts, her hips, her cleavage) and the word choice was also inappropriate. A child would have focused on other things–perhaps how pretty the flowers in the woman’s hair looked, or on how she wished her hair was that long but how much she didn’t like having the knots brushed out, or how easy it would be to reach the high shelves in the kitchen where her parents hid the pudding snacks if she were that tall.

Do you see now what I mean by the difference between author “voice” and character “voice”?

Word choice can have a subtle, but significant, impact on how the reader receives the information. For example, let’s say you have a developing relationship between Mr. Robert Smith and Dr. Jane Doe. Let’s make this a romance that follows the genre standard of two characters with scenes that alternate perspective, i.e. one scene from the woman, one from the man, and repeat throughout.

In the first scene, we get narration from Janie. She thinks of herself as Janie. Not as Jane Doe, not as Dr. Jane Doe. We may have other characters call her Jane or Dr. Doe via dialogue, but in her head–and therefore, by extension, ours–she is Janie.

In the second scene, we get narration from Bob. He thinks of himself as Bob, not Robert, and certainly not as Mr. Smith. Now, other characters, including Dr. Jane Doe may call him Mr. Smith or Robert, but in his head–and ours–he is Bob.

We get the meet-cute, the romance starts, and as we progress through the story, the characters start thinking of each other differently: Mr. Smith becomes Bob to signal a change in relationship; Dr. Doe becomes Janie for the same reason. How the viewpoint characters refer to each other changes not just in dialogue, but in the narration.

Let’s say, Mr. Smith has a child from a previous marriage. That child would call him “Dad” or “Daddy” or maybe even “Father” depending on the relationship. And none of Dr. Jane Doe’s siblings or friends are going to call her Jane because they know she prefers Janie, but a stranger certainly might assume that it’s Jane or Ms. Doe. Subtle little “tags” like this can help distinguish who is speaking, but if you’re going to use Jane and Ms. Doe and Dr. Doe, don’t do it until it’s been clearly established that they are the same person. In other words, don’t start the first scene of the romance with a stranger calling her Ms. Doe, an acquaintance calling her Jane, and another using “Doctor” or we might think there are three people: one Ms. Doe, one Jane, and someone called “Doctor.”

There are other word choices that can betray whether or not author voice or character voice is being used. One of those words is “try.”

Depending on how the word is used, it can be a subtle clue that whatever the character was doing, he or she failed.

As an example, let’s say we have a third-person narrator who says “The mouse tried to escape.” Whatever the mouse is doing at that particular MOMENT in time–dodging, weaving, scurrying, hiding–it is DOING, not TRYING to do. At that moment, the mouse is performing specific actions that will allow it to escape, specific actions that are far more interesting and tension-inducing than the author telling us that the mouse tried to do something.

“Try” only comes in after the mouse fails. So who knows that the mouse WILL fail? The author of course. The third-person character narrator is not supposed to know that the mouse will fail until it does. Use of the word “try” subconsciously signals that failure is coming. It’s not needed, except in retrospective narration, and frankly, I think it’s a tension killer. You’ve just told us the mouse is going to fail. Whatever else you do to put tension into describing what the mouse is doing after you used the word “try” will be diluted by the implication that failure is coming. Same goes for all of the synonyms of “try.”

Another method, one that should be used with caution involves technical terminology and terms of art. If you have a character who is a doctor, in real life he’s going to use correct medical terminology. Same with an engineer, a scientist, an air traffic controller, a gun-nut, etc. Do, however, keep your target audience in mind. Are you writing FICTION whose main audience is doctors, physicists or gun-nuts (from me, that’s a term of endearment, just so you know)?

If you’re writing fiction primarily for gun-nuts, the term of art “cover and concealment” (cover is a car door; concealment is a bush; now think about which one you’d be safer behind if someone was shooting at you) is perfectly appropriate. They are NOT redundant terms. If you use it, expect to get some push-back from the non-gun-nut reader/editor. If your genre and/or character calls for it, however, use it, but also consider providing an explanation, and keep in mind that a few terms of art here and there may be fine, but a novel filled with them will only appeal to a specific target audience.

For the science fiction audience, one of THOSE terms of art is the word “sentient.” The dictionary definition is different from how it’s used in science fiction. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. Will it matter to your story? Well, again, it depends on who your character is. A scientist will probably use the correct term, i.e. sapient. If your character is a sci-fi fan at a convention and his main sub-genre is soft sci-fi, he’s going to use the term “sentient” even though he means sapient.

If you use “sentient” because that’s the appropriate term your character would use, be aware, one or many of your readers will be the Ackchyually-guy. Give him his due, i.e. ignore him.

How much effort should you put into making each character sound different? Here I’m talking specifically about dialogue rather than character voice vs author voice. And, as with a lot of things that are a matter of taste, it depends. I think you need to have a good reason. If all your characters are middle class Americans from the Midwest they are all going to sound pretty much the same (shocking, I know). If all your characters are over-bred aristocrats they will probably sound (again, shockingly) the same. Why are you denying who they are by giving them distinct speech patterns?

If, OTOH, you’ve got a Texan, an Aussie, and a Scot, then yeah, go to town. Give us that drawl and that accent and that brogue, but just a little bit of it please. True story: my Australian friend’s father came over for a visit a few years back and I could not understand a single word the man said.

Realism, in this case, would be an impediment to the story, not an enhancement.

My point is that writing in character voice, rather than author voice (whenever possible) can help your characters’ dialogue sound distinct from each other, because the reader is solidly grounded in only ONE character’s perspective for the entirety of the scene.

It’s a very important tool in your writing arsenal. Give it a try.


One thought on “Characterization and Word Choice

  1. Well said… And very much on point. That’s one of the things I work hard at. And a small point if I may- Older Hispanic people do not use contractions when they speak English. Yet another small thing for your characters.

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