When fictional characters jump off the page and seem to be sitting right beside you in conversation, you’re under the spell of a distinctive voice. It’s the magic that happens when a character’s voice lingers in your head long after you’ve put down the book.
Dialogue is an essential part of that voice. It conveys what a character is like; it can also embed conflict. A character speaking reveals a whole world of information: gender, race, nationality or other background information, socio-economic status, geographical location, humor, emotion, body language, beliefs, interests, passions, attitudes and that character’s own idiosyncratic way of speaking. There is a rhythm and cadence to language, a musicality, that can make your character sound like no one else.
Skilled writers create subtext in dialogue: that is, they show us what the character wants versus what the character says they want. The author is looking to craft (and the reader is turning the pages to discover this very thing) a moment of epiphany for that character: an internal realization that leads to an external resolution.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates believes that good fiction is all about voice. He writes: “Pride and Prejudice, for me, is all about voice. I don’t find Mr. Darcy gripping at all, except when the Austen’s narrator is describing him. It is as though she is letting me on a secret. Ditto for Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. The voice belongs to society insider, one who believes in all of its trappings but also loves to gossip about its hypocrisies. It is as if the voice is saying to you—’If you don’t have anything good to say, come sit by me.’ Same with Moby Dick and the vagabond intellectual Ishmael. Same with The Great Gatsby and its everyman, Nick Carraway.
“In fiction, if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story,” says Coates.
The novel I am currently reading, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, is a dazzling tour de force, full of rich voices, each distinct from one another and unique onto themselves. The book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is rich in scenes and characters and incidents.
The novel jumps constantly from past to present, alternating different characters’ perspectives on the same event. Only the most skilled author can take the reader on that kind of journey, and weave together so many voices seamlessly.
In this NPR interview, Atkinson talks about how she crafts characters at all stages of life. She says, “I think as human beings we don’t just live in this moment, but the whole of our lives we’re dragging with us — aren’t we — and we’re constantly thinking about the past and what it was like and what we were like as children and what our parents were like. So I think in a novel it’s more pointed, you kind of go, ‘Oh, now they’re talking about 80 years in the future or something,’ but I think that is how we think.”
As a writer, I’m constantly listening for my characters’ unique and authentic voices. And when I hear it, I know I’ve unlocked the key to my character’s story. I let them tell it—and try my best to get out of the way.