She Said What?

I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are

until they start talking. – Joan Didion

You’ve heard the advice about how essential it is to your writing to find your own voice, but when it comes to fiction, it’s more important to find your characters’ voices. How your characters speak and what they say can often provide your readers with more insight into your protagonist and antagonist than a physical description does. Here’s dialogue from my own writing:

Once the main pieces of furniture were in place, up came the boxes. Now, Leslie was in full action, going up and down the stairs with the men, dogging them the entire time.

Careful. That one is marked fragile. Can’t you see that?” Leslie said.

The men nodded politely.

I know how rough you Mexicans can be with other people’s belongings, as if they don’t matter, but I won’t abide that. Quit jostling them so much. Those boxes contain my dishes. For heaven’s sake, take it easy.” Leslie looked around for Cynthia, hoping her daughter would back her up, but Cynthia wouldn’t look at her.

After more than a dozen boxes had been set in the living room, Leslie started to open them. “You have to check everything,” she told Cynthia. “Those people break things all the time.”

In this passage, Leslie shows how she doesn’t trust Mexicans, speaks to them as though they are stupid, and is certain they have done something wrong. She also feels it necessary to explain all of this to her daughter Cynthia, who does not share her mother’s views about the movers.

Your main characters need to have their own way of speaking. This doesn’t mean there has to be huge differences between them, but each character, like each person you know in your life, should have his or her own style. For example, in the example above, Leslie uses the expression, “for heaven’s sake,” which is something none of the other characters would say.

While voice can be about dialect – and certainly as writers we want to be very careful about using dialect – it’s more about the person. Yes, she may have a southern accent or he may be from another country and uses some words incorrectly, but it’s really about personality. Does your character speak in halting tones or is he full of bravado? Does she speak poetically or is he straightforward? Is she anxious, pessimistic, self-criticizing? Is he humorous, optimistic? Does she speak in bulleted lists or long, rambling sentences? Does he use lots of metaphors or similes?

If she is from Down East, does she use regional sayings or phrases? Does he consider himself prophetic and always gives advice about the future? Does she make suggestions or does she give orders? Is he patronizing? Is she self-centered? Does she respect others’ opinions above her own? Is he calm?

We need to know our characters well enough that we can hear them speak the way they would if there were living, breathing friends and enemies of ours. There are authors, such as Alice Walker and Justin Gustainis, who have said they sometimes hear their characters’ voices so clearly they can just follow them around and take down what they say.

And that can lead to our characters saying things that surprise or shock us. It’s one of the blessings – and some would say the curse – of giving our characters the free reign to speak the way they want to. We tend to think we control our characters and have sole rights to put words in their mouths, but you know your character has come to life when she starts saying things you could never have imagined. When that happens, just keep in mind what Truman Capote said: “You can’t blame yourself for what the characters say.” It means you have done your job as a writer; you’ve let them take on a life of their own. Well done!

For more helpful hints and exercises on writing about characters, please visit my  BLOG