Guest Ashlyn Macnamara: Unique Character Voice
Posted by Anne Barton Feb 26 2013, 12:00 am in characterization, golden heart finalists, guest author, voice, writing tools
Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.
Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.
Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.
In the scene where she’s first introduced, she asks the hero’s name, saying, “It makes me feel funny not knowing someone’s name. Wrong-footed, you know, or as if I had three thumbs on one hand, if you see what I mean.”
A bit later on when she’s helping Taran escape from a dungeon, she says, “I do wish you’d stop worrying. You sound as if you’re having your toes twisted.” And just a bit later as they’re trying to ease through a narrow passage: “I feel as if I had all my bones taken apart and put together wrong.”
Her dialogue is peppered with little sayings like this, each one different, but not so often it becomes annoying. Her observations are unique and fresh, and you get the feeling the author had a great deal of fun thinking them up.
Another character from the series who has his own voice is Gurgi. Now, no one is quite sure what Gurgi is. He isn’t quite human, although he’s humanoid. He might be rather like a primate, only he can talk, and he has a very unique way of expressing himself—in rhyming pairs of synonyms. His main concern in life is having enough to eat, but he doesn’t ask for food. He asks for “crunchings and munchings.” When battle looms, he talks of “fightings and smitings” or possibly “whackings and smackings.” Another thing he does—in common with Elmo, I might add, but I don’t imagine Gurgi’s voice as so annoying—is speak of himself in the third person.
A technique like this might be as easy as giving a character a particular epithet and playing with it. Thus you get King Smoit, a boisterous bruiser who enjoys nothing more than a good fight, unless it’s the feast that follows, who likes to swear by his body and bones. Or occasionally his heart, or other (G-rated—they’re kids’ books) parts.
Or you get Fflewddur Flamm, a bard who enjoys coloring the facts, because they so often need it (but he has a harp whose strings stretch every time he stretches the truth to keep him honest). He likes to exclaim, “Great Belin” often followed by “a Fflamm is ever valiant” or “ready” or whatever adjective fits the occasion.
So what you have here is the author assigning unique phrases and modes of speech to various character and then playing with them. He doesn’t necessarily stick to one catch phrase, but he keeps the pattern fresh and lively. I think this is a useful and clever little tool for characterization.
Far be it from me to claim I ever used this technique consciously. A lot of what I write comes straight from the gut. But my debut novel features two sisters with very different personalities. Sophia is flighty and lets her emotions rule her, so her pronouncements tend to be airy and breathy. Lots of ohs and ahs.
Julia is much more down-to-earth and prefers to let logic and good sense guide her actions. On top of that, Julia is good friends with a former cavalry officer. Her language, as it turns out, tends to use slightly more colloquial terms, possibly expressions she’s picked up from her friend. She thinks in terms like “dash it” and asks her friend if he’s foxed. At one point, she mentions how her sister’s “bagged herself an earl” much to her mother’s consternation.
Another of my characters who gets a lot of page time is the Earl of Highgate. The moment I dipped into his POV when I was writing the original draft of my story, he revealed a lot about himself through his thoughts on his sister:
Mariah was a stickler for the finest points of protocol. She’d happily spent all thirty-seven years of his life terrorizing him on such matters until they were drilled into his being. He’d always thought their father would have made a sound investment in buying her a commission—preferably in India. Said sister now advanced along the corridor, rather like an Indian elephant, less the trunk, of course.
The moment he thought that, I knew he was a bit snarky in his quiet way. Also he didn’t get along with his sister. Of course, when you meet his sister, you understand why. I’m not using particular phrasing with him, per se; it’s more an overall attitude he conveys here.
You can bet I’m going to pay closer attention to this aspect of character development in the future. Just so long as no one develops any annoying catch-phrases.
Now over to you. What little characterization tricks have you noticed authors using? Which ones do you use yourself?
One lucky commenter (US or Canada only, please) will win a copy of each of the Secret Curtsey Society’s debut novels. Who is the Secret Curtsey Society? It’s made up of the 2011 Golden Heart® finalists in the Regency category. Two of them are Rubies, and the other three have blogged here in the past. So the prize here consists of Sara Ramsey’s Heiress Without a Cause, Erin Knightley’s More Than a Stranger, Valerie Bowman’s Secrets Of a Wedding Night, Anne Barton’s When She Was Wicked, and my own A Most Scandalous Proposal. It’s a veritable Regency extravaganza!
Ashlyn Macnamara writes Regency romances with a dash of wit and a hint of wicked. Despite her insistence on looking toward the past, she can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Her debut A Most Scandalous Proposal is available at your favorite bookstore now.
After watching her beloved sister Sophia pine over the ton’s Golden Boy for years, Miss Julia St. Claire has foresworn love and put herself firmly on the shelf. Unfortunately, her social-climbing mother and debt-ridden father have other ideas, and jump at the chance to marry Julia off to the newly-named Earl of Clivesden…the man of Sophia’s dreams.
Since resigning his Cavalry commission, Benedict Revelstoke has spent his time in London avoiding the marriage mart. But when he discovers that the Earl of Clivesden has set Julia in his sights, Benedict tries to protect his childhood best friend from the man’s advances—only to discover more than friendship driving his desire to defend her. He surprises them both with the force of his feelings, but when she refuses him and her father announces her betrothal, he fears he’s lost her forever—until Julia approaches him with a shocking scheme that will ruin her for all respectable society…
…and lead them into an exquisite world of forbidden pleasures.