Letting Characters Speak

Imagine a scene in a book in which an inspector asks three different characters the same question: “Were you there last night?” 

As authors, our job is to make each character’s voice distinctive enough that adding “Jose said” or “Jae Lin replied” becomes all but redundant. Not just with words that reflect our characters’ personalities, education levels, ages, and regions, but with, to name a very few, some of their preferred clichés, consistent emotional timbres, and verbal rhythms. 

I’m still, ahem, attempting to hone this authorial skill. I’m currently reading a book by an author who plumps out all his characters and manages, despite juggling a half-dozen protagonists, antagonists, and bit players, to give each one a rich enough personality to render them technicolor, relatable human beings. Damn him. 

Not for the first time, it occurs to me to create a kind of character bank in which I list not only the usual traits like appearance and background but also some verbal quirks: overused turns of phrases, an emphasis on odd words, an obnoxiously large vocabulary, vocal fry, consistent use of sarcasm and irony, short and choppy sentences, a determined focus on grins and positive words, etc., etc. Below are a few examples. 

“Were you there last night?” 

  • “Um, okay. Your suspicion? Insulting. Everyone knows I go to the club on Friday. I don’t spend two hundred bucks a dress to let them rot in the closet.” 
  • “Nope. I ain’t been there since—ah, jeez, when was that? Two years ago? Three?” 
  • “Yeah, ‘cause that’s a rockin’ joint I try so hard not to miss.” 
  • “Oh, indeed, I was. I decided to visit my friend Shirley—you know Shirley, I’m sure. Plump woman, short hair? No? Well, anyway, I decided to go see Shirley and tell her all about my new grandbaby. Cute as a pumpkin seed—my grandbaby, Lexie’s her name, not Shirley. I don’t mean to say Shirley’s not cute. She has a certain kind of—what do those French say?—voulez vous coucher or what have you…” 
  • “Yes, ma’am, I was, although only briefly. I visited the premises from maybe eighteen thirty to eighteen forty-five.” 
  • “I mislike your implication.” 
  • “Yeeaaaahhh. Not really my jam, kitten.” 
  • “Do they call women inspectors ‘dicks’? You know, just a question. No offense. I’m sure you didn’t mean to offend me, either, by hinting I may be some kind of whackadoodle.” 
  • “I can’t believe, I mean, why would I? Everybody knows me. Ask anybody. Being around lots of people—eww. I get my groceries delivered. I have broadband. Why would I need to, you know, why would I ever leave my house?” 
  • Scoff and eye roll. 

Okay, that was more fun than it should have been. Anyone else want to play?


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