Creating Characters 2: Sound and Speech

In part 1 of this series, we studied faces in detail and tried to paint their likeness using words. Hopefully you succeeded in evocatively describing Alan Rickman (or any other person you chose). Faces are the first and most obvious thing we think of when asked to describe someone. But the way someone speaks – tone, volume, word choice, accent, rhythm – is just as much a part of what makes them distinctive as their physical appearance is.

Dialogue is a major part of any novel or short story. Giving your characters appropriate and individual voices is essential to differentiating them. In real life, people talk differently depending on their age, gender, social class, country of origin, culture, situation, and on their aims and outlook. Someone who wants to project a tough image will ‘talk tough’, avoid sounding soft or emotional, and use a louder, more abrasive tone. A woman wishing to be feminine and cultured will talk ‘properly’, avoid swearing, and try to sound musical and elegant.

Word choice in reported speech is something most authors are aware of and attend to. What is often given less – and sometimes no – attention, is describing the actual sound of a character’s voice, and the speed and rhythm of their speech. Yet, sometimes, this is a very distinctive aspect of a person. It is one that can say much about their character too. Some people talk fast and incessantly, revealing their nervousness and scatter-brained state. Others talk very slowly and monotonously, perhaps indicating their dull, steady outlook and melancholy temperament.

In order to delve deeper into this important aspect of creating characters, you might find it useful to do the exercise we did in part 1, but this time describing someone’s speech and voice instead. Here is a video for you to listen to. It is the late British actor Alan Rickman (RIP Alan – a great actor with a beautiful and unique speaking voice), reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.

Alan Rickman was considered by many to have a very appealing voice. But what is it about Alan’s voice that is so compelling? What makes his voice so distinctive? Does he talk fast or slowly, is his voice monotonous or musical (greater or lesser range of pitches), does he form the consonants carefully, or mash them together with the vowels (ie. ‘I do not know’ vs. ‘I’ddunno’). What about the tone – rich, thin, full, shrill, deep, creamy, steely, rough, nasal etc.?

When you have listened to the voice, try to put what you heard into words.

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