January 11, 2014 / 3 Comments

The Lessons of Henry Higgins

             Classic pop culture reference.
            Apologies for this being a bit late.  I’ve been bogged down with a bunch of publicity stuff for the new book.  Ex-Purgatory comes out next week, available at bookstores everywhere.  Check it out.  You can read a (hopefully) fun book and passively support the ranty blog.
            Speaking of which… on with this week’s rant.
            I haven’t talked about dialogue in a long while, and I though (if there’s no real objections) that I’d talk about voices.  If there are any objections… too bad.  You should’ve spoken up last week when I mentioned this was what I was going to talk about.
            A character’s voice is a specific element of their dialogue.  It’s the little tics and subtleties of how someone speaks that makes them unique on the page.  Voice is why we can tell Gandalf from Magneto (even when they’re both played by Sir Ian McKellen) and why Jane Eyre and Katniss Everdeen sound different in our heads.
            Now I thought about how to approach this for a while, and it hit me last night to scrap most of what I had and go back to basics.  So I want to bounce a couple very, very simple characters off you.  As I do, try to imagine a conversation with said man or woman.  You’ve probably had one at some point.
*The Babbler—That person who fills every moment with talking.  She hates silence.

*The Military Guy—He’s been in for four years and is planning on four more, at least.

*The Expert—Pick a topic and they’ll explain it to you… or correct your every statement.

*The Sports Nut—That guy who loves the game. Did you see the game? Go Piggers, right?

*The European—The elegant woman who could be a supermodel… if she wasn’t already an artist.

*The Indirect Person—You know that girl who kind of talks around everything and it takes forever for her to get to the point of, y’know, that thing we’re talking about…
            Now, granted, each of those characters is a broad stereotype.  We could probably come up with a dozen more, easy, and a dozen past that without much effort.  But here’s the thing—we know exactly how each of these characters speaks, don’t we?  As soon as I described them, you could hear this person in your head.  The military guy speaking with the etiquette and manners drilled into him.  The sports nut using football terminology to explain his day at work.  You knew the kind of words these characters would choose and how they’d use them.
            That’s their voice.
            Again, this is broad.  I like to think of it as the foundation for building the voice I’ll use in the story.  For example, in the Ex-Heroes books, Barry a.k.a. Zzzap is a huge sci-fi fan.  Comic books, space operas, monster movies, Trek, Galactica, you name it, he loves it.  He’s the geek version of a sports nut.  This is the base I used for him as a character and for how he would talk.
           Now the thing is to layer on top of that.  Build up that character from a flat stereotype into someone with some depth.  It’s just like making character sketches, except we want to be aware of how these elements will affect their dialogue.
            For example, what kind of person is this character?  Are they generally positive or negative, and to what degree?  Enough that it spills out into their dialogue? I decided Barry was going to be a very positive, fun guy—someone who’ll crack jokes no matter how inappropriate the timing, and who’ll try to find a bright side even in desperate situations.
            Another layer to add is education.  Is my character well-educated, street smart, or maybe… well, stupid.  There are stupid people in the world, after all, and uneducated folks, too.  When characters make observations, they say things based off their beliefs and understanding of the world.
            Also, where were they born, or where have they spent most of their life?  We all know that people in Great Britain use different names for car parts than folks in the US (boot and bonnetvs. trunk and hood), but did you know that people call soft drinks different things depending on what state they’re from?  Not to mention the whole hoagies-subs-grinders thing.  Does your setting have taxis or cabs?  Fountains or bubblers?  These are great little details which help to build unique voices.
            These are all just suggestions, mind you.  There are tons of details about a person that could affect how they talk.  Social status, financial status, political beliefs, religious beliefs, sexual orientation.  Any one of these could come across in the way someone talks.  How do they say yes (yep, yeah, uh-huh)?  How do they say no (nah, nope, uh-uh)?  How do they swear? 
            I will toss out a warning on the accents, though.  When dealing with people from other countries—or other planets—it’s tempting to  try to phonetically add little differences in their pronunciation.  About twelve years back I wrote a story years with bird-aliens (the Kroot from WarHammer 40K, if you happen to be that kind of geek) and figured their beaks would make them sound a little more grrrowly, so I’d put three R’s instead of one whenever the letter was used.  I also decided their soft S sounds would come out more like a raspy Z.  Two little tweaks like that would give them a very distinct voice, and how distracting could it be, right…?

            “Grrreeeetingz,” the tall creature squawked.  “I am Nirrrok Te, mazter zhaper of the Krrroot of the Plateau Warrrzpherrre.  I have come to offerrr ourrr zerrrvizez az warrrriorz.  My kindrrredz arrre at yourrr dizpozal, forrr the prrroperrr prrrize.”

             For the record, that’s the first line of alien dialogue in the story.  I had, no joke, almost twenty-six pages of this. As you can see from this one paragraph, it gets old reallyfast.  And I almost did it again with Oskar, the German landlord in 14.  I came up with three verbal tics for him, but realized almost immediately what a mess it would make his dialogue.   So I cut it down to one (using F’s for V’s, so he’d say “What do you haff there?”). 
            If the accent needs to be there, I try to make it as minimal as possible.  Both in use and impact.  Because if a reader has trouble working their way through my dialogue, they’ll find something that’s easier to read.
            And that’s voice in a nutshell.  Well, a coconut shell, maybe.  Just look at the character elements I already have—and I do have them, right?—and use them to give this character a unique voice.
            Next week I’ve got to be in San Diego for a book signing (Mysterious Galaxy—show up and say “hi”), but I’ll try to come up with something quick before I get on the road.
            Until then, go write.

0 replies on “The Lessons of Henry Higgins”

Wow Ex-Purgatory was awesome! Definitely a bit of a departure from the narrative of the other stories. I loved the mystery vibe going on throughout, and the climax was as unexpected and creative as ever. Also, I loved the cameos from some older characters and my favorite Junkie Quatrain character.

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