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.