I like characters with big voices. I like to be able to hear their scorn, their happiness, their hesitation, all their doubts and fears, come through in a few words. I want two completely different individuals to be able to utter the same words – ‘can I have the ketchup, please?’ for example – and for the sound of it to be complete different, even when written on the page.
I want Sammy the Elbow to drip scorn as he snarls, “Can I have the ketchup, please?” radiating indignation that he even need ask and mocking the words he speaks.
I want Sally the Banshee to exude quivering doubt and hope that you don’t even mind the question being put; “Can I have the ketchup, please?”
That’s what I mean by voices. And sure, you can’t do it in a line. Voices are something that are built up over time, and you use more than just the words you speak – you have the wonderful tool of “… growled Sammy… grumbled Rhys… murmured Matthew…” to give weight to the manner in which the words are spoken. But eventually, you can pretty much monologue with a voice, and with any luck, it’ll come to life of its own accord.
Oddly, I find having a strong picture of a physicality helps immensely with how the voice sounds as well. I imagine Sally the Banshee, both hunched and hunching, wings curled down and head hanging, humbly asking for the ketchup, barely daring to meet the eyes of her fellow dinner guests in case they judge her for her tastes in condiments. I imagine Sammy the Elbow flapping in indignant rage, his goblin head flapping up and down as he fumes at the injustice of the world. I can picture Kevin the Vampire flicking his wrist in contempt – utter contempt – at the dietary habits of people with O- blood and throwing his hands up in the air like something out of an Edvard Munch painting at the merest thought of unsanitary conditions or bad dental practice. In my mind’s eye, knowing how these people look as they speak alters entirely the sound they produce. This isn’t any remarkable thing – in real life we absolutely judge the sentiment in a sentence as much by physicality as by sound, but from a writing perspective, it’s a powerful tool. If the spoken words are strong enough, I don’t need to tell you that Sally is cowering with social anxiety. Likewise, if the cower is written powerfully enough, I don’t need to tell you that she’s mumbling her shame-faced requests.
However, the simple truth of all this is that the voices writers make on the page… almost never bare any actual resemblance to natural speech as we practice it on a day-by-day basis. The ‘um’s, ‘ah’s and ‘uh’s of daily speech, while occasionally fun, slow a bit of dialogue down if used even half as much as we daily deploy them, and while some may curse like Sammy or swear like Kevin, I doubt there’s any living soul who’d do it on quite the same scale.