Prepared by: Rhéal
Posted on: Sun, 5 Aug 2001
Character voice is one of the tools the
writer can use to define
character and set the mood. Voice consists of many things: diction
(how words are pronounced), rhythm, sentence structure, word choice
(idioms), level of grammar, recurrent topics or speaking habits, and so
Think of the voices in Tom Sawyer, how
they help us know the
and the setting. See how the voices change to reflect the characters'
In a more recent example, Barbara
Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood
a great example of the use of voice. The narration in this novel
alternates between five characters: the mother, and her four daughters.
Each of those characters has her own voice, so that if I open the book
at random, I can quickly tell which character is narrating.
Here is the first paragraph for each of
We came from Bethlehem,
Georgia, bearing Betty
Crocker cake mixes
into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting
on having one
birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. "And
our mother predicted, "they won't have Betty Crocker
in the Congo."
God says the Africans
are the Tribes of Ham. Ham
was the worst one
of Noah's three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Everybody comes down
on their family tree from just those three, because
God made a big
flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham,
and Japheth got
on the boat so they were A-okay.
Man oh man, are we in
for it now, was my thinking
about the Congo
from the instant we first set foot. We are supposed
to be calling
the shots here, but it doesn't look to me like we're
in charge of a
thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned on
a big old
prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove that
God had ensued us
here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off
and staggered out into the field with our bags, the
surrounded us - *Lordy!* - in a chanting broil.
Charmed, I'm sure.
We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating
bodies. What I should
have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant
Sunrise tantalize, evil
eyes hypnotize: that is
the morning, Congo
pink. Any morning, every morning. Blossomy rose-color
streaked sour with breakfast cookfires. A wide red
plank of dirt -
the so-called road - flat out in front of us,
continuous in theory
from here to somewhere distant. But the way I see it
through my Adah
eyes it is a flat plank clipped into pieces,
trapezoids, by the skinny black-line shadows of tall
Through Adah eye, oh the world is a-boggle with
colors and shapes
competing for a half-brain's attention. The parade
Into the jangled pieces of road, little jungle
roosters step from the
bush, karkadoodling. They jerk up their feet with
as if they have not yet heard about the two-legged
beasts who are
going to make slaves of their wives.
Having read the above, can you guess which
one is the youngest,
one has something odd about her physically, which one will want a
cashmere sweater set for her birthday?
Note the differences in sentence
structure, in word selection, in
correctness or inventiveness. Note what each tends to focus on. Leah,
we quickly learn, is fixated on her father - this will colour her
narration throughout. So when I read, later in the book, this extract:
Father spoke slowly, as
if to a half-wit,
"Elections are good, and
Christianity is good. Both are good." We in his
the danger in his extremely calm speech, and the
creeping toward his hairline.
I had no trouble identifying the narrator
as Leah, simply from her
constant attention to her father.
Anyway, we see here some of the things
that make a character's
choice of words and of topics; sentence structure; level of correctness
and degree of (in)formality; and so on.
So, the exercise. In 300 words or less,
write a dialogue with two
three if you feel ambitious) separate characters, each with a separate
voice. These voices should tell us something about the character, and
help us tell the characters apart with a minimum of dialogue tags.
When critiquing a submission, point out
your impression of each
character, based on the dialogue clues.
Posted on: Mon, 13 Aug 2001
I have to admit, this week's exercise did
not unfold quite as I had
expected when I wrote it. Not that this proved to be a bad thing.
As it turns out, people took the exercise
statement more literally
I expected. It wasn't my intention to forbid action narration or
dialogue tags, but the majority of submissions consisted of dialogue
exclusively, without narration or exposition at all. Heck, as an
exercise, that certainly worked! And it obviously stimulated people, as
this has been our busiest week by a signficant margin.
What did we learn about voice? Voice is a
powerful tool, but not the
easiest. Giving different characters a distinctively different voice is
not a trivial task. To complicate things, much of what constitutes
voice in real life - cadence, intonation, pitch - doesn't translate
readily into the written word. On the other hand, we did see that
distinctive voice doesn't have to rely on heavy-handed idioms or
- effective voices can be created using more subtle cues.
I do think this is a topic we can return
to, to continue learning
this very important aspect of writing.
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.