I was downtown with the Missus watching the play Billy Bishop goes to War. It’s a fun performance, a one-man show which follows the exploits of Billy Bishop, a top-ranked fighter ace from World War One. Oddly, I’d seen it thirty years ago and suddenly it had popped up again at the local playhouse.
After the show, the performers (all two of them (okay, a one-man show, with a second guy on the piano)) sat down and fielded questions from the audience, a nice intimate Q&A. Someone in the audience asked Timothy Williams how he did all the characters (different COs, mechanics, and even high-brow dames) that played roles in Bishop’s life.
Williams’ answer was interesting. He explained that in a one-man show, an actor has to conserve energy and vocal effort. The character’s costume might be no more than a pair of glasses or a coat turned out. It comes down, really, to the voice. And mostly to inflections. One has to convey bombastic natures, disdain, or earthiness without needless shouting or effort. And in that, it’s just a matter of the character’s speech patterns.
I found that very interesting. As a writer, I’m fully aware of this. When making a character, you can spend paragraphs explaining the cut of their clothing, their hairstyle, their mannerisms. You can even give them a spell-checker-befuddling Scottish brogue. But the character won’t stick. Readers won’t remember it.
It comes down to the patterns of the character’s speech. A glowering dockhand should talk in short sentences, even fragments. A deceptive salesman or oily lawyer should have sentences that double back on themselves. A hen-pecking wife should literally repeat herself. And a drunk shouldn’t’t slur, he should ramble.
This might seem obvious but it’s not quite so when one is in the writer’s chair. When one is threading a story together, it’s too easy to lose the characters in the plot, to make everyone sound alike but wear different hats. If you find yourself throwing a lot of “the astronaut said” or “the governor answered” in your story, you’ve probably lost your speaking style. The dialog cadence alone should identify who is speaking.
In Fire And Bronze, my novel surrounding the Carthaginian Foundation Myth, I leaned this trick first-hand. The story is driven in places by class warfare. There are characters low-born and high. And in one of my pre-publication passes, I focused on just this. Just with the simple trick of pointedly allowing the commoners use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t) and the nobles not (do not, will not, cannot) added a level of identification to their speech. We have no evidence that Canaanites used contractions – I’ve read the Aramaic grammar rules and there is no official recognition of such devices (though they left their vowels off their words, so their language had other unwritten shortcuts). But I think it’s safe to bet that Phoenician merchant-princes appealing to kings for a trade concession spoke differently from the deckhands of their ships. And if one assumes a difference in cadence, one should write it.
Don’t use contractions unless you’re common. Literally!