Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Marianna: Further Thoughts on Dialogue -- Distinct Voices for Similar Characters

As a follow-up to Varian’s post about dialogue-heavy scenes (April 28), I wanted to share some thoughts about a difficulty often faced by YA (and MG) authors when writing dialogue – creating distinct voices for adolescent friends who’ve grown up in similar circumstances.

All fiction writers know that developing distinct voices is one of the Ten Commandments of dialogue. As clearly explained by Anne Lamott and Janet Burroway:

“…you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others” (Lamott, 66).
“A character who says, ‘It is indeed a pleasure to meet you,’ carries his back at a different angle, dresses differently, from a character who says, ‘Hey, man, what it is?’” (Burroway, 137).

But while working on my first young adult novel, I encountered a problem. My characters – a group of teen friends – are far, far more similar to each other than the two characters Janet Burroway presents. They share similar educational backgrounds, hometown, class, and race. And isn’t this true of the characters in many YA and MG novels? After all, in “real life”, before they’ve made choices and gone their own ways in the world, teens are often surrounded by others who are (circumstantially, at least) similar to themselves.

So, how to create individual, identifiable voices?

In looking at YA novels that center on groups of friends, I found that some (definitely not all) writers successfully develop recognizable voices for their characters while still believably portraying close-knit groups with much in common. To do this, the writers key into the defining aspects of the characters’ personalities and create voices that reflect those traits. The differences between voices are subtler than in Burroway’s example, of course. But, the voices clearly belong to separate, distinct individuals.

Here’s a look at how one writer does this successfully.

Love, Cajun Style by Diane Les Becquets follows friends Lucy (the narrator), Evie and Mary Jordan through the summer before their senior year. The three girls grew up together in the small, Southern town of Sweetbay, are of similar middle class backgrounds, and attend the same school.

Lucy’s summer is characterized by a loss of youthful innocence, but also by an affirmation of her belief in the goodness of people. Two qualities come through most strongly in her speech. One is her general childlike enthusiasm – the innocent side of her personality –manifested in her folksy, almost old-fashioned phrasing:

“What did you think about Mr. Savoi’s open house?” Evie asked.
I felt myself smile. “I had myself a mighty fine time.”
… “And?” Evie said.
“And Dewey asked me if he could kiss me.”
“He asked you?” Mary Jordan said.
“Mm-hmm. And I’m here to tell you that was the finest kissing I’ve ever had in my life” (221-222).

When Lucy’s somewhat naïve and idealistic ideas about love are challenged, though, her speech reflects an unsure side, as she struggles to figure out her own feelings and thoughts. For example, when speaking to Mary Jordan about her loss of virginity, Lucy doesn’t offer opinions, but only asks questions. This is her way of speaking whenever a friend is in crisis. By asking questions, she leads both her friends and herself to a deeper understanding.

“When did he tell you he didn’t want to be serious?” I asked her.
“We were supposed to get together last night. But then a bunch of the guys wanted him to go out. He’d been acting different. I called him later. That’s when he told me.”
…“When did you decide to go through with it?”
“It was after we made up at the play. We talked about it. At first I wasn’t sure. But then one night things just seemed to happen. It’s supposed to feel good, right?” she said.
I just listened.
“The first time it hurt. I thought it was going to be so incredible. I’d felt so much when we were kissing. But when it was over, I didn’t feel anything. It all happened so fast. I thought the next time it would be better.”
“Was it?” I asked (267).

Lucy’s tendency to listen and ask questions – main characteristics of her dialogue (or lack thereof) throughout the book – reflect her confusion, her search for answers in her life, as well as her gentle ability to help friends come to conclusions about their own lives.

Evie’s main dilemma is almost the opposite of Lucy’s; she is struggling to find the openness and innocence necessary to experience a romantic relationship. Evie is jaded, primarily because of a mother who has a constant stream of male “visitors” in and out of the house. She has developed both a tough exterior and a sense of humor to help her deal with her situation. Unlike Lucy, she is also confident in her opinions and offers advice freely. These are the characteristics that come through in her speech. Here, Lucy confides in Evie about having kissed her teacher:

“I mean, he’s good-looking and all. And maybe it’d be fun to think about kissing him. But thinking and doing are two different things. Remember those kids we were teaching vacation Bible school to last year?” Evie said.
“Remember how cute little Peter was?”
“Well, how do you think it would have been if one day I’d gotten him in the broom closet and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, even though he was suscitating just fine?” (151).

Evie’s colorful sense of humor often comes through in her use of metaphors. She tells Lucy: “You can go speaking to him. But try and be like one of those Orange Dream Bars that’s been sitting in the freezer too long. Gets that freezer burn all over it” (152). Not only would Lucy never offer advice so confidently, she would never use an analogy like this.

Mary Jordan is the dreamer of the three, more comfortable in the world of books and poetry. This sensibility leads her to make statements such as, “Love is so magical. It’s like this spell that makes you all dizzy in the head.” (124). She also has the least noticeably Southern voice, which corresponds with her more bookish, slightly more worldly personality. “It’s crazy. I thought Doug and I could be one of those great loves. I felt important. I had the whole thing planned out in my head. But now I feel so empty, like it never meant anything to him at all” (265). There is no mistaking Mary Jordan’s quotes for anything that Evie or Lucy would say.

In the earliest drafts of my young adult novel, Frost House, the adolescent characters did not have any variation in their speaking voices. I was focused on the content of their dialogue and on making it sound realistic. I didn’t take the next step -- thinking about what dialogue differences would deepen the characterization of the girls. The following is an example of a conversation between Leena, the narrator, and her new roommate, Celeste. (Beats and most speaker attributions have been removed.)

“You know, I’m sorry I never called over the summer,” I said. “I mean, when I heard about your mother, I wanted to call, to say I was sorry and see how you were doing. But…”
“I didn’t feel much like talking, anyway,” Celeste said.
“If you ever do want to talk about it, I hope you’ll feel comfortable.”
“Look, Leena, I appreciate it, but you don’t have to take me on like some sort of peer counseling patient. I’m fine. Really. My mother was a very sick, very unhappy woman. Believe me, she’s better off where she is now.”

And the revised version:
“I’m sorry I never called over the summer,” I said. “I wanted to call, when I…when I, you know, heard about your mother—”
“Look. I don’t know what big-mouth David told you. But let’s get something straight. I do not discuss my mother. Got it? Do. Not. Discuss. My. Mother.”
“Okay. I totally understand you feel that way now, and I don’t blame you at all. But if you ever—”
“I won’t,” she said. “Ever.” After a pause she added, “David doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. I hope you do.”

In the earlier version, you can’t tell the difference between the two voices. They both sound pleasant, reasonable, congenial. In the most recent version, Celeste is stronger and more aggressive. She says things that might be perceived as offensive. Leena sounds unsure, like she’s approaching a rabid animal. By changing the voices, I not only strengthened the characterization of the two girls, but raised the tension in the scene. Celeste’s attitude, obvious from her dialogue, makes it much easier to understand why Leena would not want to live with her and makes her a more intriguing character.

Leena’s voice was also very similar to her friend Abby’s. In going back over Abby’s dialogue, I decided that it would fit with her character to have a tendency to overstate and exaggerate, as this is one of her main qualities – she’s always looking for drama. So where she used to say, “Are we going to unload the car now? In the rain?” she now says, “Please don’t tell me we’re going to unload in a hurricane.”

While at first it can seem like two characters would speak in similar ways, all characters are dealing with different issues and have different personalities. By thinking about which of these personality elements are most important, a writer can not only come to a speaking style unique to that character, but also clarify in her mind what attributes and personality traits most define that character. And for the reader, the experience of getting to know a character is enhanced if the character’s voice is one clearly and compellingly her own.

Works Cited:
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Fourth Edition. New
York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994; paperback edition, New
York: Doubleday, 1995.
Les Becquets, Diane. Love, Cajun Style. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005.


  1. Marianna,
    How did you know I was struggling with 4 boys who all sound alike? I'm going to listen now to what they want to say, not what I want them to say.
    Great post!

  2. How timely! I've been working on differentiating my YA characters' voices this past week.

    Fabulous post!

  3. Thanks Mary and Casey! I'm glad it was of help. "Doing It" by Melvin Burgess is another one to look at for great examples of a group of friends with distinct voices.

  4. Very informative! Thanks!
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE (about a group of teens who I HOPE I all made sound distinctive!)
    Ch. 1 is online!

  5. Wonderful insight. I was just musing about this on y own blog. You gave me some really good tips and examples. Thank you!

  6. From what I can tell, the way to customize the appearance is to add the class prefix ".mobile " to additional style statements in order to customize the appearance in mobile browsers. Not had time to try it much yet, but will do my best over the holidays so I can write up a post.

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