Voices: Authentic Characterization - writercize #39 (A to Z 22)

Voices are like oral fingerprints.  No two people speak in exactly the same way.  People generally don't even speak the way that they write, and certainly not along the exact track of their thoughts.  Even siblings have different tonality, different slang and vernacular.  We speak at different speeds, with different accents, sentence structure, sometimes a foreign word thrown in, sometimes a mispronunciation, even in our mother tongue.

In sales training for a position in college admissions (yes, I said sales for higher education - much to my naive chagrin) one of the primary techniques was to mirror the applicants speech patterns and gestures, to make yourself more relatable.

When creating a character in a short story or novel, be cognizant of their dialogue.  A man from New York City will not speak the same as a man from New Orleans or a man from Seattle.  A woman from Brisbane will have a different world view andspeech pattern than a woman from Omaha or from London.  Even if all of these people share English as their native language, their regions will (likely) affect their speech.   

I put likely in parentheses there because there are certainly exceptions to that rule.  Anyone who is a fan of Breakfast at Tiffany's will remember Holly Golightly's reported transformation from southern belle to New York socialite based on speech training.  My Fair Lady fans can hardly think of the movie without hearing "The Rain in Spain" in their heads.

However, these exceptions are helpful examples of understanding your character's complexities.  Dialogue must match a character's upbringing, current living situation and ... audience.  I had one good friend in college who would speak with Ivy League perfection in a networking situation, then switch to informal Ebonics with fraternity brothers and Spanglish with some of the South American international students.  Same person, same essential message and heart, but three completely different speech patterns to fit different parts of his identity.

When considering your character, remember to give them dialogue that fits their character (and be sure it is distinct from their inner monologue, if you allow the reader to see that, which may be much more honest than who they represent to the world).  

Are they speaking in their native language?  Do they tend to listen to the person they are conversing with, or carry on a parallel conversation?  Do they speak quickly or have a drawl?  How do they alter their speech for different situations?  Do they blurt things out or think before speaking?  Where do they pause in their speech?  Are sentences chopped or verbose?  How old is your character?  What is their relationship to the person on the other end of the dialogue?

writing exercise:  Lunchtime at a restaurant.  Briefly identify the setting and write a dialogue between customer and waitstaff or friends/coworkers at table.

(Click "read more" for writercizer sample response.)
writercizer response:

Oregon vegan in Brooklyn pizzeria

"Hey, look at this'un."  Joey Maroni jabs his sister Rita at the register as the door dings open.  They like to point out tourists to each other; makes the twelve-hour shifts go a little faster. 

Rita looks up and sees a pale woman with dreads and Birkenstocks dressed in that organic cotton clothing that sells for a designer price tag but with a shape that looks like it came off the clearance rack at Ross.  She ambles slowly in to the family restaurant and is nearly knocked down by the neighborhood boys behind her.  Instead of scowling at them she looks at them with forgiving affection and giggles before selecting a booth close to the window.

"She ain't from around here, that's for sure," says Rita.  "Whaddya think, Joey?  Lost her Prada in the woods, no?  Stuck in some hippie-dippie Nirvana meets Phish concert from the 90s?  This girl needs some sun and a stylist, pronto.  Hows about instead of a pizza I serve up some advice?"

"Yeah, yeah.  Just go get her order, Ms. Vuitton.  Fast.  I'm gonna need your sass to get these scoundrels in and out before that high 'n mighty son-of-a-b principal rounds'em all up to get back to afternoon classes," says Joey.

Rita walks over to the booth and sees the woman's furrowed brow as she scans the menu.  She's knows there's no way this is gonna be quick.

"Hey, hon.  Whad'll it be?" she says.

The woman looks up at Rita.  "Water to start.  What on your menu is vegan?  And organic?" she asks.

"V-what?" says Rita.

"Vegan - you know, like, fruits and vegetables.  What the earth and it's animals want us to eat," the woman replies patiently, not a hurry in the world.

"Well, I don't know about you, but in my family of animals like my brother over there, it's all about the meat.  No meat, no eat.  Fuhgeddabout it.  But, yeah, we've gotta have somethin' vege-whatever you said for ya - how's about a nice eggplant parm?" Rita offers, trying to help.

"Parm - that's cheese, right?  Like parmesan?  No, no cheese, not vegan.  Anything else?

"No cheese.  No meat, no cheese.  You wouldn't make it long in my famiglia, hon.  How about a pasta with red sauce?  That'll fill ya up." says Rita.

"Is the pasta made with egg?"

"Yeah, of course.  It's in the noodle.  What, no egg either?  How are you even alive?" Rita reaches out and pinches the woman's bicep. She gets they are speaking two entirely different languages gastronomically, and wants to wrap it up, get on with the order.  "Tell you what hon, I've gotta rush at the counter that won't disappear with my brother's fumbling hands, so I'm gonna go take care of that, but I'll put in an order for you off the menu - verdure alla griglia - grilled veggies.  Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, hearty food to put some meat on your bones.  Throw on some oil, some spices - you'll feel like you're in the old country, dining off the land in the campagna.  Ok, hon?

"Yes, sounds great.  Is it organic though?  I really try to be gentle with the earth, you know?  If it's organic, that would be wonderful."

"I dunno - it is what it is.  We buy whatever comes off the truck each morning.  All's I know is it's arrived fresh today and it ain't no meat, cheese or egg ... and I gotta get back to the counter.  You'll like it.  I hear only the peel matters anyway, so if it ain't organic, just eat the insides.  Yeah?  Good?  Ok, water and verdure comin' up." Rita says, then steps away from the table with a wink.  "You hear that Joe?  Yell it to the back, eh?  We've gotta get a move on."

Before she walks back to the counter, she turns one more time to the woman and says, "By the way, where are you from?  I've lived in Brooklyn all my life and I'm always curious to know where our non-New Yorkers come from."

"Oregon," the woman replies. "I'm just out here to see what the East Coast is all about.  Just got here this morning.  Seems pretty big and pretty fast so far."

"Or-uh-gone.  Hmmm.  Yeah, I had a cousin went out there one time.  All trees and stuff, right?" says Rita.  "Well, benvenuta a Brooklyn, hon.  Enjoy your stay.  Keep an eye on your wallet, pickpockets on the subway move fastest of all.  But otherwise, have a fun time.  I'll be back with your water and veggies."


  1. Hi Alana!

    I love reading about voice. It is so a hard thing to describe, and yet we all have it. Excellent post!

    I've given you a blog award! Come see my blog for the details. :)


  2. Very engaging story, and the characters' voices were so distinct, one could almost picture them -- filling in the details about their appearance.

    I hope to post a story soon, but I know it's going to take me more than a few hours.

  3. Great use of voice! I felt like I was sitting in the pizzeria. As a vegetarian in south central Pennsylvania, I felt for the Oregon native.


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