A Brief Guide to Literary Voice: Building Memorable Dialogue
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Dialogue is the best way to understand a character – far better than a verbose, clinical description – but only if it's well used. The seven sins of dialogue tags are only a small part of it – it's not enough to avoid mistakes, one has to demonstrate skill. The key here is literary voice, a nebulous and hard-to-explain concept that nevertheless forms the foundation of quality dialogue. Voice is how the character's personality and background come across through his or her speech. It's the context between the words, what we gather through things like form, cadence, and vocabulary.
Unfortunately, voice is extremely hard to master, and it's not surprising why. Most of us grew up around demographically similar people who share a common manner of speaking - that voice, our voice, becomes the neutral voice. That's why, for example, characters in stories written by twentysomething geeks tend to talk like twentysomething geeks, even when it's not appropriate. It's hard to change voice, especially to one that's very unfamiliar.
Elements of Literary Voice
While voice is very complex, there are a few traits which you should keep in mind when developing a character's voice. It's best not to focus too much on these, but they can serve as a useful jumping-off point:
Formality. The concept of formal versus informal speech is not as strong in English as it is in some languages, but it still exists. Heavy use of lingo and polysyllabic words, minimal use of contractions and slang, and highly proper grammar can all make a character's speech seem highly formal. This may be appropriate for characters who are cultured or intellectual, or who have pretensions to same, or to characters with orderly or strict personalities. Loose, slang-ridden speech is better suited for less educated or less worldly characters, but be careful of affecting a regional dialect if you can't make it consistent.
Cadence. As strange as it may seem, it is possible to capture certain aural aspects of a character's voice through dialogue, which can be as important as what they say. Large words and long sentences can indicate a character with a very deliberate manner of speaking - appropriate for an older character or one with a more laid-back personality. Short, clipped sentences can indicate a more kinetic speech pattern, well-suited to hyperactive or neurotic characters. Of course, you can vary this according to the circumstances – a character may be inclined to speak in shorter sentences if he is tense or in a hurry.
Emotion. Characters who use flowery speech with big gestures tend to come across as more open, emotional, and friendly...or aggressive, depending on the context. By contrast, terse, flat language with brief sentences and phrases suggests a colder, more closed-off personality. It's worth noting that this aspect of voice can change based on the character's mood. Mercurial characters may have greatly varying speech patterns, depending on their current frame of mind.
There are some tricks one can use to create a distinct voice. A personal favorite is having a character avoid all contractions. It's an unusually formal speech pattern, but one that I have encountered in real life. In fiction, I've used it to demonstrate various traits, including near-fluency in English (as with Zhang Yanli in The Fabulist) and pretensions toward intellectualism (as with Ken Greevey in Nerd World).
Deriving Voice From Background
Much of a character's voice is derived from their upbringing, heritage, and environment. It's not necessary to have a full family tree on every character you write, but understanding how their personal traits affect dialogue is important. Here are a few key aspects:
Age. This is an important one. Older character will generally have a more formal, restrained manner of speaking, while younger characters will use a more free-wheeling style with a lot of hyperbole. In a story with a modern setting, you should also keep in mind the exact period when your characters grew up - the dominant culture of the time will greatly inform how they speak. Don't get too caught up with slang, though – many authors writing younger characters (especially teenagers) will try to match the patois and end up making fools of themselves. It's more important to capture the general manner of speech than the exact lingo.
Gender. A lot of writers worry about this one. If you want to get extremely technical, James W. Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns gets into the nitty-gritty of speech by gender (along with age and class), but most writers don't need that much detail. It may be enough to consider gender according to how it intersects with culture and age. Older female characters and/or those from more traditional societies will likely be more demure and soft-spoken than their male counterparts. However, don't take this too far - I've noticed that many male authors have female characters that constantly talk about how they are, in fact, female. Women don't do this real life; they shouldn't do them in your stories.
Ethnic/Cultural Background. This one's obviously touchy. Unless you've really immersed yourself in another culture, writing for a character of a different ethnic background is hard and should really consider if it's necessary. It's best not to go overboard with slang, which can come across as offensive and reductionist if it's done badly. Instead, consider things like cadence of speech, as well as non-verbal gestures and expressions.
Education. Obviously, well-educated characters will be better spoken than their uneducated counterparts. Again, don't go overboard - real-life smart people don't talk like they have thesauruses in their back pockets.
Socioeconomic Class. This one crosses into education and ethnicity a bit. In general, characters from less affluent backgrounds will speak more casually than more privileged individuals, especially in more stratified societies. Additionally, lower-class, middle-class and upper-class youth may use very different slang.
Location. Every location has its own patois, and most people will maintain a bit of their native speech even if they live somewhere else for a long period of time. If that manner of speech marks the individual as an outsider, s/he may attempt to hide that patois, with varying degrees of success. As mentioned above, it's probably not worth trying to capture a regional accent unless you're very familiar with it and can do it consistently.