Posted Apr 23 2010, 8:06 pm in

Somebody tweeted a link to an engaging discussion about the Twilight series this morning.   Specifically, the debate focused on whether the books were “good”.  (I’ll spare you the debate and cut to the chase – consensus, at least from these participants, was a vocal NO!)  I, however, enjoyed the series. Thought they were sweet, innocent, easy to read, and yes, perhaps the literary equivalent of a gooey dessert instead of a well-balanced meal, which is why I probably enjoyed them so much.

One criticism that received a lot of attention in this discussion piqued my interest. Specifically, that the character of Bella Swan sounded far removed from the teenager she is.  The book is narrated in Bella’s first person POV, so this criticism has merit. Few teens I know use words like indeed or quite in sentences.

This begs the question… how much voice do we give our characters?  Indeed, I quite would have despised Twilight had it been written the way teenagers really talk. (*grins and winks)

I’m currently working on a YA novel about cyberbullying.  I’m also using a first-person POV – that of a teenage boy, a former bully.  I am constantly struggling to reign in his anger and impatience with the world.  He’s vulgar, he’s self-centered, but he also knows how much pain he caused, so he wrestles with emotional conflict.  His internal musings want to be uncensored, but I’m afraid no one would dare read such a book if I pepper Dan’s narration with all the F-bombs, ball-sacs, dicks, pricks, and other assorted slang terms he favors when he talks to me. (At night. When I’m trying to sleep.)

Do you find written regional dialect irritating?  The occasional gonna is fine, but a whole sentence with apostrophes, hyphens and phonetically spelled words grinds my teeth. And whenever I read a “fuggedabutit” from a gangster’s lips, I slam a book down in anger.  Can you imagine teenage dialogue if it were truly representative?  *shudders*  The first time I’d have to type “aaiight”, I’d feel compelled to throw myself into a wall as punishment.

So, really, how much voice should we give our characters? She may have missed the mark with Bella but I think Stephenie Meyer did a great job with Edward, the century-old vampire. He sounds exactly as I would imagine someone from the turn of the century would sound.

I think Nora Roberts is a master at voice. I recently read a trilogy she wrote set in Ireland. Every word of those books is infused with the lyrical way English is spoken by native Irish.  Read this out loud, taken from Heart of the Sea:

“You made considerable progress before I got here.”

“Sure, and once you gave us the high sign there was no reason to wait. We’ll have you a good solid foundation, Mr. Magee, and on schedule.”


“Aye, Trev. The men you sent from America, they’re a fine team.”

I deliberately omitted any character descriptions because I think the passage alone indicates which character is Irish and which is American, don’t you? Yes, Roberts’ does use a few non-American terms, but it’s not just the lingo such as the occasional aye, it’s her placement of words in sentences that gives the dialogue its lilt, its melody.

So how do we give teenage characters a realistic and representative voice without crossing the line into absurdity? Is there a way to infuse dialogue, narration and exposition with realism without resorting to “like totally I KNOW you suck dude aiight”?

The key, I believe, is like a gooey dessert… moderation. How do you decide what your characters’ voices sound like?



7 responses to “Voice”

  1. I find too much dialect a distraction in the novels I read. However, I still desire to read (and write) characters who have a strong voice.

    Since I don’t write YA, I don’t have much input about a teenager’s voice, but I’m curious to read other responses. I still struggle with voice in my adult WIP.

  2. Patty says:

    In my early works, all my characters sounded the same. I’m getting better at making them sound unique, but still struggle with making them sound ‘real.’

  3. Lee R says:

    Hi Patty

    Late comment on this but I find this an interesting subject. Two pieces of advice on voice that I found helpful are to write a diary entry in your narrator’s voice as practice. Or to spend a whole day as “him” (or her). Just pretend to be this person. See what he/she sees, do what he/she does.

    If your character is really talking loudly to you though I wouldn’t censor him. He obviously wants to be heard. :)

    • Patty says:

      Excellent idea. A diary. I love that. I love the other idea too, but it would be hard to walk around my office all day pretending to be an 18 year old guy.

  4. Lee R says:

    Oh no it’s not hard. Just walk with your legs wide open and belch a few times. (No stereotypes here…) :)

  5. Patty says:

    LOL! I can just picture the looks on my colleagues faces’! (We have a belcher here… let me just say, “Ewww.”)

  6. Lee R says:

    Haha. They won’t mind if you tell them what you’re doing it for. Then you can rudely snack on whatever’s in the company kitchen and stare at the secretary’s boobs.

    To be serious though, it can be a challenge to write in the other gender. The protagonist in my novel (which might not be “marketable” because it is coming-of-age) is a 15 year old boy and for the most part I heard his “voice” loud and strong while writing.

    Just once I caught myself writing his description of something as “lovely”, which was clearly female me talking and not him (unless he was British, which he’s not).

    I think it can generally also be said that teenage boys won’t notice what people are wearing (as much as we adult females would). In fact they don’t notice it at all (unless it’s low-cut).