What Makes a Character: Speech
When creating a character, the most important thing to consider is how to make them a fully realised three-dimensional individual who exists in their own right. To do this effectively, they need to take on a life of their own. They need to be separate from the writer and become alive.
There are various methods that can be used to help work out who a character is, including creating questionnaires and even role playing as the character, however in the first instance the character needs to grow. Much like creating a person, they need to be conceived, and then gestate for a period of time until they are ready to be birthed into the world you are creating. Release them too soon and they will not survive without help; hold onto them for too long and they will have outgrown your anticipation of them. You need to time it right, and a good way of finding that is to identify how they speak.
Speech is key to defining who we are as people. Our choice of words, the flow of our language, our accents, pauses, inflections, the stresses we place on certain syllables; all this tells others who we are, where we are from, and how we see the world. We do a lot of this subconsciously, yet when you create a new character you have the opportunity to define it in the first instance.
There are six defining factors to consider when discovering how a character speaks, and each will have a dramatic difference on their speech patterns and choice of vocabulary.
Where a character is will inevitably influence their speech, both consciously and subconsciously. Placing a character in Manhattan in a ballroom full of socialites may cause them to adopt certain speech patterns and rhythms to better fit in, however if gaining entry to that ballroom had been something of a lifelong ambition it is likely they would have already adopted a lot of those particulars. If, instead, they were in the alleyway next to the ballroom, waiting for some wealthy folk to leave for whatever reason, their speech would likely be different again.
How a character speaks is as much down to their age as anything else, but also the age of the world around them. A 19-year-old in Manhattan in 1929 will speak differently to a 19-year-old in Manhattan in 1939, for example, in the same way that a 29-year-old in Manhattan in 1929 will speak differently to the original 19-year-old in the same place in the same year. The age of a character, and the age of the world around them, will have a huge influence on the way they talk.
A character’s biological and genealogical heritage will inevitably define how they see themselves and the world around them. If our 19-year-old is from a family that have lived in the Bronx for the last few generations, and had previously emigrated from southern Europe, they will see themselves through this prism and will either embrace it or attempt to escape it. The power of personal perception through choices and chance defined prior to birth—and therefore entirely outside of the character’s control—is an incredibly strong factor to consider on their vocabulary and accent.
The gender of a character, as well as their biological sex, will be of enormous importance to how they talk. As conversation is a two-way connection, it is as much a channel for reception as it is a method of broadcast. How others treat the character based on their biology and identity will have shaped their personality, and by extension their speech. Societal expectations—which are closely linked with gender—will also have helped define how they speak. Consider the difference between a 19-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman in a ballroom in 1929 Manhattan—gender plays a huge part in conscious and subconscious choices of dialogue.
What kind of environment is this character used to? Class, to some degree, can change, yet in another sense it cannot. If this character is from a working-class background, then no matter how much they try to adopt a middle-class dialect and put across the perception of being part of the clique, they will never really fit in. On the other hand, if they are from a more middle-class environment, they would feel comfortable in an atmosphere in which others may not, as they will understand how to speak to fit in without thinking about it.
The final consideration is how the character was raised. What kind of home was it, who raised them, and how were they treated? The previous four factors will go a long way to define this one, yet like the others it does not have to conform to stereotypes. Our working-class 19-year-old female from the Bronx who is now in a ballroom in Manhattan in 1929 surrounded by socialites may have had a tough upbringing, possibly an abusive one, but also might have had a solid family foundation which instead has given them a different outlook. Did they attend school? How much were they pushed as a child, or left to their own devices? What boundaries—if any—were in place, and did they rebel against them? All this will have an impact upon how they speak, and their personality as a whole, and so should come across in the way that they talk.
Getting a character’s speech right will help give them life, and who they are is integral to how they talk. Looking at their background, their choices, the choices of those around and before them, and society as a whole will help you—the writer—understand who they are and get inside their head. Once you are inside theirs, they will come to life inside yours. They will be born onto the page and their character will be real, as they will speak as a real individual.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.