Posted April 23, 2010on:
Somebody tweeted a link to an engaging discussion about the Twilight series this morning. Specifically, the debate focused on whether the books were “good”. (I’ll spare you the debate and cut to the chase – consensus, at least from these participants, was a vocal NO!) I, however, enjoyed the series. Thought they were sweet, innocent, easy to read, and yes, perhaps the literary equivalent of a gooey dessert instead of a well-balanced meal, which is why I probably enjoyed them so much.
One criticism that received a lot of attention in this discussion piqued my interest. Specifically, that the character of Bella Swan sounded far removed from the teenager she is. The book is narrated in Bella’s first person POV, so this criticism has merit. Few teens I know use words like indeed or quite in sentences.
This begs the question… how much voice do we give our characters? Indeed, I quite would have despised Twilight had it been written the way teenagers really talk. (*grins and winks)
I’m currently working on a YA novel about cyberbullying. I’m also using a first-person POV – that of a teenage boy, a former bully. I am constantly struggling to reign in his anger and impatience with the world. He’s vulgar, he’s self-centered, but he also knows how much pain he caused, so he wrestles with emotional conflict. His internal musings want to be uncensored, but I’m afraid no one would dare read such a book if I pepper Dan’s narration with all the F-bombs, ball-sacs, dicks, pricks, and other assorted slang terms he favors when he talks to me. (At night. When I’m trying to sleep.)
Do you find written regional dialect irritating? The occasional gonna is fine, but a whole sentence with apostrophes, hyphens and phonetically spelled words grinds my teeth. And whenever I read a “fuggedabutit” from a gangster’s lips, I slam a book down in anger. Can you imagine teenage dialogue if it were truly representative? *shudders* The first time I’d have to type “aaiight”, I’d feel compelled to throw myself into a wall as punishment.
So, really, how much voice should we give our characters? She may have missed the mark with Bella but I think Stephenie Meyer did a great job with Edward, the century-old vampire. He sounds exactly as I would imagine someone from the turn of the century would sound.
I think Nora Roberts is a master at voice. I recently read a trilogy she wrote set in Ireland. Every word of those books is infused with the lyrical way English is spoken by native Irish. Read this out loud, taken from Heart of the Sea:
“You made considerable progress before I got here.”
“Sure, and once you gave us the high sign there was no reason to wait. We’ll have you a good solid foundation, Mr. Magee, and on schedule.”
“Aye, Trev. The men you sent from America, they’re a fine team.”
I deliberately omitted any character descriptions because I think the passage alone indicates which character is Irish and which is American, don’t you? Yes, Roberts’ does use a few non-American terms, but it’s not just the lingo such as the occasional aye, it’s her placement of words in sentences that gives the dialogue its lilt, its melody.
So how do we give teenage characters a realistic and representative voice without crossing the line into absurdity? Is there a way to infuse dialogue, narration and exposition with realism without resorting to “like totally I KNOW you suck dude aiight”?
The key, I believe, is like a gooey dessert… moderation. How do you decide what your characters’ voices sound like?