When I read words I speak them in my minds voice. It’s fascinating when you read something that has the power of suggestion behind it changing the voice automatically for you. This can be an image or description or pre-dialogue dialogue tag.
Establishing a characters physical image is as important as what they might sound like when speaking. Do they have a deep voice, high-pitched, nasally, squeaky or are they flat and toneless? Do they stutter, pause or speak with a rhythmic flow? Do they have an accent or local dialect? Are they male or female? Working this into the story is as important as what colour hair and eyes they have. I keep my accented people to a minimum. I have no trouble announcing their accent in narration or by a character flat-out commenting on it. I don’t hammer that home every time they talk though.
Dale leaned over to whisper in Amber’s ear, “coast is clear.”
Amber got up to sneak off to her hideout to steal a moment of sanctuary from the world and Scott.
Automatically the voice is male and whispered. Same goes for shouting, yelling, or any other intonation that can be tagged to the dialogue.
Valery flopped back on the couch. “I doubt it.”
Jackson licked his lips and lowered his voice to a sultry tone. “I’m going to make you beg, then scream my name.”
“We’ll see about that.” Valery said as Jackson leaned in.
Chances are you applied the correct tones to the voices in your minds voice. This is why it’s important I’m careful not to drop the ball when writing. I’ve talked about the importance of dialogue and action tags to convey correct emotional tone before, but it is just as important to make sure the correct voice is heard as well.
Now for fun if you were to read “The sun blazed its way across the azure sky. Scorching the earth to a barren wasteland. It steals the last remains of water from the small lake; condemning all that depend on it to either move on or perish.”
Meh boring right? now try it with this dialogue tag.
Sir David Attenborough gestured around himself and took a deep breath before continuing his narration. “The sun blazed its way across the azure sky. Scorching the earth to a barren wasteland. It steals the last remains of water from the small lake; condemning all that depend on it to either move on or perish.”
Unless you don’t know him, chances are you read that in a lovely Male British accent in your minds voice.
This effect is quite powerful when an image is shown near or within the dialogue or quote. A novel however is not a picture book. So it is up to the writer to paint the image of the speaker. Hopefully it is done before dialogue starts or quickly during.
If a character has an accent or specific dialect stick to it. However a word of caution, saying they speak in an accent over ad over or remarking on it in dialogue or narration is lazy and irritating if done too often. I have a character in BiaAtlas with a southern accent. I give her simple dialogue cues to remind the reader instead of bashing them over the head by saying ‘she said in her accent’. I’ve already established at the beginning she has a light melodic voice with a soft southern accent. So as the story progresses I make sure to include sayings, phrases, catch words, slang and the very, very occasional narrative reminder.
A word of caution, even if I think I know enough about an accent or local dialect I don’t. I do research and lots of it. It’s a fine balance too over the top and the reader will not respond favorably. If a word needs to be spelled phonetically to force the reader to read the accent, I’m super careful about that. It can become confusing and frustrating to read if it’s too much or too often. I’m personally okay with the occasional phonetic reminder, but consistency is key.
Not all characters need to have something remarkable about the way they sound. Male or female and young or old is often enough to get a reader through happily. This is another example of too much of a good thing can spoil the outcome.
My advice about assigning a voice.
Once you set up a character describe their speaking voice. If it’s unique or important to the story make that clear. The reader will establish their own version of the voice in their head and as long as they know who is speaking it’s more likely to be applied. Less is more in this case IMO.
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Disclaimer: Neither Sir David Attenborough nor Morgan Freeman said any of the words above. I wrote them specifically for this post and just for fun.