Everybody’s Talking at Me

While preparing a class on dialogue recently, I came across a concept I hadn’t noticed or considered before: our character’s voice may change based on the situation they’re in.

Consider our own daily lives and the various situations we find ourselves in. If we have a day job, we speak in a different manner to our boss than we do our co-workers. If we’re in customer service, we often react differently with different customers. Some we can be playful and joke with. Others are strictly business and we maintain the professional decorum they demand, even if only non-verbally.

We take our cues from the situation and the person we’re talking to. Notice how polite and differential we are when a police officer pulls us over for speeding. And then how we complain to our friend about how unfair the cop was to give us a ticket.

Our attitude when speaking with our pastor is different from our attitude when working on an outreach with fellow church members.

If you’re a parent, your voice changes depending on the situation and the child. If we have several children and they span age groups from pre-school to adolescent, our kids start thinking we must have multiple personalities. We go from the loving parent taking care of bumps and scrapes to the red-faced tyrant wanting the bedroom cleaned to the strict disciplinarian who dares expect our teens adhere to a curfew. If the kids get into a dispute, they quickly learn that, as Bill Cosby said, “We don’t want justice, we want quiet!” And we frequently don’t care how we get it.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, my female lead, Rachel, used different voices depending on her situation. I didn’t discover this until I was struggling to develop a stronger character arc for her and she revealed her voices to me during an interview I had with her. This sweet (I thought) young lady told me, in no uncertain terms, to go back and read the story. Rachel is a former prostitute trying to establish a dressmaking business while seeking to put her past behind her. At the same time, she’s finding her way as a new Christian and struggling with whether to let a man into her life.

As a businesswoman, her voice is polite and deferential, even as she steers customers away from choices that make her cringe inside. But her old way of speaking comes out when the mayor tries to get too friendly and take advantage of her. She whispers to him, “Remember, I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a clown and convince her she looks like Queen Victoria.” It’s the voice of a woman who won’t be messed with.

How do your characters speak when you put them in different conversations, especially with someone in a higher social status?

6 Replies to “Everybody’s Talking at Me”

  1. >She whispers to him, “Remember, I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a clown and convince her she looks like Queen Victoria.” It’s the voice of a woman who won’t be messed with.<

    I love that line. It makes me want to read your book!

  2. This is so true! I have never thought about how it applies to fiction. Thanks!

  3. The notion of discourse communities can readily enlighten fiction writing, but often I get the sense that many authors don’t think of how interactions between social classes will impact a character’s choice of words. I just did away with the two educated characters in my work in progress, but now you’ve got me thinking about how the rest of my lower middle class characters can still show status through their speech.

    I used to draw Venn Diagrams on the board when I explained the idea of discourse communities to my ninth grade English students. One of my five classroom rules was “No Ugly Words” and then I would diagram the various social spheres students use discourse in.

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