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Exercise: I hear voices

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal
Posted on: Sun, 5 Aug 2001

Character voice is one of the tools the writer can use to define character and set the mood. Voice consists of many things: diction (how words are pronounced), rhythm, sentence structure, word choice (idioms), level of grammar, recurrent topics or speaking habits, and so on.

Think of the voices in Tom Sawyer, how they help us know the characters, and the setting. See how the voices change to reflect the characters' moods.

In a more recent example, Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" is a great example of the use of voice. The narration in this novel alternates between five characters: the mother, and her four daughters. Each of those characters has her own voice, so that if I open the book at random, I can quickly tell which character is narrating.

Here is the first paragraph for each of the daughters:


   We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes
   into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one
   birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. "And heaven knows,"
   our mother predicted, "they won't have Betty Crocker in the Congo."

Ruth May:

   God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one
   of Noah's three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down
   on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big
   flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got
   on the boat so they were A-okay.


   Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo
   from the instant we first set foot. We are supposed to be calling
   the shots here, but it doesn't look to me like we're in charge of a
   thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned on a big old
   prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove that God had ensued us
   here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane
   and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people
   surrounded us - *Lordy!* - in a chanting broil. Charmed, I'm sure.
   We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating bodies. What I should
   have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads.


   Sunrise tantalize, evil eyes hypnotize: that is the morning, Congo
   pink. Any morning, every morning. Blossomy rose-color birdsong air
   streaked sour with breakfast cookfires. A wide red plank of dirt -
   the so-called road - flat out in front of us, continuous in theory
   from here to somewhere distant. But the way I see it through my Adah
   eyes it is a flat plank clipped into pieces, rectangles and
   trapezoids, by the skinny black-line shadows of tall palm trunks.
   Through Adah eye, oh the world is a-boggle with colors and shapes
   competing for a half-brain's attention. The parade never stops.
   Into the jangled pieces of road, little jungle roosters step from the
   bush, karkadoodling. They jerk up their feet with cocky roosterness
   as if they have not yet heard about the two-legged beasts who are
   going to make slaves of their wives.

Having read the above, can you guess which one is the youngest, which one has something odd about her physically, which one will want a cashmere sweater set for her birthday?

Note the differences in sentence structure, in word selection, in correctness or inventiveness. Note what each tends to focus on. Leah, we quickly learn, is fixated on her father - this will colour her narration throughout. So when I read, later in the book, this extract:

   Father spoke slowly, as if to a half-wit, "Elections are good, and
   Christianity is good. Both are good." We in his family recognized
   the danger in his extremely calm speech, and the rising color
   creeping toward his hairline.

I had no trouble identifying the narrator as Leah, simply from her constant attention to her father.

Anyway, we see here some of the things that make a character's voice: choice of words and of topics; sentence structure; level of correctness and degree of (in)formality; and so on.

So, the exercise. In 300 words or less, write a dialogue with two (or three if you feel ambitious) separate characters, each with a separate voice. These voices should tell us something about the character, and help us tell the characters apart with a minimum of dialogue tags.

When critiquing a submission, point out your impression of each character, based on the dialogue clues.

Rhéal's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 13 Aug 2001

I have to admit, this week's exercise did not unfold quite as I had expected when I wrote it. Not that this proved to be a bad thing.

As it turns out, people took the exercise statement more literally than I expected. It wasn't my intention to forbid action narration or dialogue tags, but the majority of submissions consisted of dialogue exclusively, without narration or exposition at all. Heck, as an exercise, that certainly worked! And it obviously stimulated people, as this has been our busiest week by a signficant margin.

What did we learn about voice? Voice is a powerful tool, but not the easiest. Giving different characters a distinctively different voice is not a trivial task. To complicate things, much of what constitutes voice in real life - cadence, intonation, pitch - doesn't translate readily into the written word. On the other hand, we did see that distinctive voice doesn't have to rely on heavy-handed idioms or dialect - effective voices can be created using more subtle cues.

I do think this is a topic we can return to, to continue learning about this very important aspect of writing.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.