How to describe a voice

Is it high, low, rough, smooth, creaky, musical, or child-like? Does it have an accent?

Think about it.  If you were describing the sound of your voice, what words would you use?  What does your husband’s voice sound like?  Your father’s?  That of the little boy next door?

And Brian Williams, on whose every word I hang each night – how would I describe his voice?  I’d call it a smooth baritone.  Clear and calm.  Certainly intelligent.  Reasonable.  Dry when humor demands it.  Warm and gracious.  Sexy.  Uh, no.  Sexy is not appropriate, given his role as a national network news anchor.  Besides, sexy is in his eyes more than his voice.  At least, that’s my take on Brian (sigh).

Describing a voice is part of writing a novel.  The challenge is to make each voice unique.

I’m facing this right now with my WIP, Sweet Salt Air.  I’m up to Chapter 4 and have described each of the main characters – hair, height, build, eyes, clothes.  Now I have to go back and put in the words that let my reader hear from the start the way each character sounds.  What to consider in making the choice?

Background.  Where does a character come from, geographically and emotionally, and does this affect his speech?

Personality.  Is a character gentle or rough, formal or laid-back?  Is he a good guy or a bad guy in the plot, conveying gentleness, understanding, or spite?

Physical traits.  What does a character look like?  A short guy doesn’t usually have a deep, deep voice.  Nor does a tall woman have a high, bell-like one.  Perhaps these are stereotypes, but stereotypes are generalities based on fact, are they not?

Personal style.  Characters, like real people, repeatedly use favorite expressions – like like, seriously, awesome, absolutely, and sure.  Just as one character might wear long, dangling earrings that set her apart from the others, so might one end every sentence with an upward inflection.  A formal person would not use contractions; a more casual one would.

See where I’m headed here?  It isn’t enough to just give a voice an adjective out of the blue.  That adjective has to be consistent with the whole picture of the character.

So where do I stand with the ones in Sweet Salt Air?

Well, there’s petite Nicole, who speaks in a high, childlike voice.  Nicole has led a charmed life, indulged first by her parents and now her husband.  She’s never had to condense her thoughts; those who love her let her talk, which she does at length.

Charlotte, on the other hand, grew up in with such self-absorbed parents that she had to be brief and direct if she wanted to be heard.  That’s how she talks now.  It serves her well in her work; as a journalist interviewing people in remote locales, she asks pointed questions that make her pieces riveting.  Her voice is confident; she’s a gutsy woman.

Then there is Leo. Leo is our rogue, a man who lives alone and likes it that way.  He has never been much of a talker, though he can be expressive in other ways – which I won’t elaborate on now because it might squelch your imagination.  Suffice it to say that when we meet Leo, his voice is low and flat, compatible with the image of an ex-con from Maine who works with his hands.

Three characters, three different voices.  Nicole is high-pitched and loquacious, Leo is deep-toned and laconic, with Charlotte falling somewhere in between.  Sound too simplistic?  I don’t spell it out quite this way in the book, because I do like subtlety.  But subtlety comes later.  When you’re first trying to establish the vocal default, simple is better.

Anyway, here’s a little exercise.  Go to my favorite place (a mall) or to my second favorite place (a restaurant).  Sit where there are lots of people, close your eyes, and listen to them talk.  Try to describe their voices.  What words would you use?  Send me a few.  I’m always looking for new ones.

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  1. June Boourgo on November 6, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Hmm..quite the exercise. Certainly from your blog I would say you already have quite a handle on it. I will be updating my blog soon and plan on linking to your blogsite. I think my fellow writers would love to read this blog. Living in a small village in the middle or ranchland British Columbia, we don’t have a mall. But we do have a coffee house and I will try what you suggest above, although I’m sure they will all think I’m nuts if I sit with my eyes closed. I’ll tell them it’s research for my next book LOL. I’ll get back to you on that. Love all your books by the way, and will buy your current one when I visit the city next.

  2. Dawn Lajeunesse on November 8, 2011 at 4:43 am

    I appreciated the way you broke down your approach to describing voice. As a newer writer (one book published and one for which I’m seeking an agent), I’ve received feedback that my characters don’t come alive as well as they could – and of course that’s an essential part of hooking the reader’s interest. Voice reflects character, but for some reason I’ve not consistently connected the two. It’s nice that a writer of your stature (and whose every book I’ve read from the nineties on) is willing to share both your techniques and a little about yourself (Brian Williams, huh?). I’m going to try your exercise at the restaurant or mall and see what I come up with.

    Meanwhile I need to explore your blog site further to see how I can subscribe!

    • Barbara Delinsky on November 8, 2011 at 5:55 am

      Dawn, to subscribe to the blog, click on the RSS button under ESCAPE in the sidebar here on this page. It’s the third button from the left. Thanks!

  3. Lori Dunbar on November 8, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Hi Barbara,

    Love what you are doing here, but I am an anti-technology person who likes to ‘keep it simple’.
    But, in response to your idea of sitting in a restaurant and listening to voices talking – – – ! This is something I have done for years. I especially love to do that very thing when in a foreign country where i do not know the language, and just listen to what I have called ‘the music of the language’. I especially favor small, out-of-the-way cafes on neighborhood streets where the foods are what the local people prefer, as opposed to the continental cuisine of the larger areas of a city. A love affair with life, for me!

    I also find that my great appreciation of your writing style is made even more complete by my inability to write like you do. Ii find my style is very journalistic, and finally realized that went along well with my pleasure in just absorbing the sights and sounds around me.and asking questions, out of curiosity. Probably my ‘teacher genes’ in action. Whatever the reason, it offers me a fascinating life, and chances to meet new people all over the world. Luck me!!!! Lori

  4. Olusola Alli on November 30, 2011 at 5:50 am

    This is an eye-opener indeed.I am a new writer (yet unpublished) from Nigeria and have often wondered how voices are described to give a character his/her personality.I have read most of your books and I must say I’m always intriuged by how you get ideas for your novels as the themes usually comes different as night is fron noonday.Keep the flag flying!

  5. Joyce Wycoff on December 5, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Ahhh … blog posts that just keep on giving.

  6. Rolo Lopez on September 7, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Wow. I’m currently working on a story for my Writer’s Workshop class and you blogpost help me su much! Thanks!

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