I had an object lesson in “voice” over the weekend. For nearly ten years I’ve been friends with a writer from Australia. We began as partners in an on-line writing course. When the course ended, we decided to keep in touch, so every Monday we exchange our news, mainly writing, but also family, pets, church, and current events. This weekend we had a chance to meet in person. Imagine my surprise when she spoke with an Australian accent.
You see, when I read her words on my computer screen, she sounds just like me.
After the initial shock, I laughed at myself for not “hearing” that accent in her written words. And that got me thinking about “voice.”
Donald Maass defines voice as “a unique way of putting words together, . . . a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Certainly, my friend has a unique way of looking at the world and of putting her thoughts into words, but in our interconnected, on-line world, what used to be regional differences are disappearing. “Brilliant,” that I first heard as an English or Australian exclamation, in now nearly universal in English speaking countries. One word she uses that does sound strange to my ear is “uni.” In Canada we go to university. In Australia, the kids are off to uni. But one word is hardly enough to convey an accent.
Of course, this discussion of voice is about the author’s voice. Each character in a story should also have a distinctive voice. Now, if I tried to mimic my friend’s speech in writing, I’d be softening consonants, elongating vowels and moving the accents around on words like Melbourne and dropping whole syllables on others, e.g. barbie for barbeque.
Yet trying to write an accent on paper is fraught with hazards. Jack Bickham, in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) has a whole chapter titled, “Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech.” Trying to convey a Scottish burr or a Cockney inflection results in unreadable misspellings that are more apt to annoy the reader than draw her into the story. More importantly, they may insult some minorities and date your book to yesteryear.
So how do you convey that a character has an accent not shared by other characters in your story?
Let them tell us. A POV character might comment on someone else’s southern drawl, or tony Oxbridge vowels.
Use word order and word choice. A rancher from Texas will use different idioms than a banker in Edinburgh. And, for the record, not all Canadians end their sentences with “eh,” but it’s fun to through it in when we’re on a patriotic rant.
So, why was I startled by my friend’s accent? Perhaps because we’ve been exchanging letters for so long I’d forgotten how far away she lived. Perhaps because both our countries are part of the British Commonwealth and we share a common cultural background, or maybe I tend to see (and hear) the world through my own experience. In any case, I had a lovely time and I’m truly thankful to modern technology for letting me develop a friendship on the opposite side of the world.