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Do you hear their voices in your head?

As a reader, I’m fairly easy to please. All I want is an interesting, well-told story set in believable surroundings with great characters whose antics and adventures make me laugh, cry, scared, angry and above all care about them.  
Is that too much to ask?
‘Not at all,’ I hear you say. ‘As a matter of fact, I feel the same way my own self.’
I know, right? So why do so many books miss the mark? 
I imagine there are at least as many answers to that question as there are readers. For me, though, whenever I put down a book that didn’t quite leave me satisfied, I can pretty much guarantee that, whatever else it did or didn’t have, one thing was missing, the voices in my head.
Now before you back away, smiling that nervous smile, let me elaborate. I’m not talking about the shrill ‘Eat all the pigeons!’ type of voice (I usually ignore those), I’m talking about the voices belonging to characters in the story.
Writers don’t just paint pictures with words. Sound effects aren’t the only things a reader ‘hears’ when he/she turns the pages. No sir, there's more, a lot more.  A well-written character gets inside your head. You can hear a distinct voice in your head when you read his/her dialogue. Don’t believe me? Try reading the novelization of any movie you’ve seen a lot and you'll see what I mean.

Why is this important? I think it’s because when we don’t hear a character’s voice, it means something’s missing – though exactly what that may be I don’t know. Maybe the dialogue doesn’t fit. Maybe we don’t yet know enough about him/her.  Whatever it is, something isn't working.
I’ve been listening to the excellent Harry Potter books on CD (I’m currently waiting for the fifth one). Here in the USA, British actor, Jim Dale, does the readings. He does a great job. So good, in fact, he won an award for it in 2000. Well done, Jim, I say, but he had help. Sure, J. K. Rowling did a fantastic job on world-building. She also invented some incredible, delightful characters, complete with interesting quirks and delightful personality traits (you have to love those Dursleys), but for me, more than anything else, she gave them all such distinct voices it’s impossible not to hear them inside your head when you read. So much so, that I had a hard time adjusting to the voices of some of the actors who later portrayed them on screen. 
Dean Koontz has a character, Odd Thomas. Odd’s voice comes through loud and clear when I read his dialogue. Terry Pratchett’s characters in the Guards and Witches books have voices that rattle around your head. It makes all the difference.
Of course, writing someone’s voice that well is a whole different egg to peel, as my old gran used to say. When I read my WiP’s aloud, if the dialogue doesn’t roll off the tongue, I know it needs changing, and when I read in silence, if I don’t ‘hear’ the character talking, I know the voice isn’t quite there, but I've yet to figure out the magic formula for fixing the problem. It either sounds right or it doesn't. 
How about you? 
When you read, do you hear voices in your head?

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( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
I like accents, and they certainly help a character stand out.

Mind you, I'm not a fan of onomatopoeic (I hope I spelled that right) dialogue. The painful way in which Richard Adams wrote the northern (English) accents in Plague Dogs made me give up on his book several times, and I'm from the north of England myself.

Thanks for sharing :)
Word Accents/Voices - (Anonymous) - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Word Accents/Voices - jongibbs - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
People have asked me for years if when I write dialog do I actually hear the voices in my head. Of course I do. If I'm not hearing those voices then there's something wrong. Once the character starts to speak to me in their own unique voice then I know it's not me speaking through them.
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
Of course, we do like them to at least attempt to stick to the script :)
(no subject) - claudee - Feb. 10th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
I think I've droned and pontificated any number of times
about how important it is to listen.
If you've developed the capacity to listen to real people around you,
you'll probably find it transfers easily to hearing imaginary people inside you.
Then it's pretty much a matter of letting them chatter
and typing it up.

And while I can't guarantee that it will work for everyone,
I think writing little things like this will also be helpful-

Copyright 2008
all rights reserved


CHENDRA, CIEL and STACY are seated around a table.

Chendra and Stacy each have coffee.

Ciel is trolling a teabag in a cup of hot water.

CIEL (to camera)
Tea and comedy.

CHENDRA (to camera)
Today, we're going
to introduce two
military women to
one another.

STACY (to camera)
Our guests today are
Corporal Susan Arzan,
and P F C Ursula Jayne.

ARZAN and JAYNE enter, each from a different door. They approach one another, meeting in front of the table.

Ciel atands.

CIEL (to the couple)
Meet Arzan, U. Jayne.

Feb. 9th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
Listening to other people's conversations is always good. If nothing else it beats reading the paper :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
Good post!

I think part of the reason character voices are so important is that in modern writing, either first person or limited third person, it's the POV character through which the audience views the world. If that voice is off, it creates a lack of trust in the character, which inhibits the readers ability to fully enjoy the world.
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
it's the POV character through which the audience views the world.
And hears it, right? :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
Yes - and I speak my dialogue as I'm writing it. Thankfully, there's only the cats to hear me either declaiming or muttering away to myself like a demented Greek chorus.
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Do you ever wonder what those cats make of it all? :)
(no subject) - starry_diadem - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starry_diadem - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Do you hear voices in your head?

Doesn't everybody? Seriously. There are internal arguments, among other things; p0lus, there are characters in works in progress that, no matter your best attempts to stifle or placate them, just will not shut up.
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Madness isn't measured by unseen voices, but in your response to them.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 9th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Feb. 9th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Geoffrey Young Haney
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:12 pm (UTC)
"I’m not talking about the shrill ‘Eat all the pigeons!’ type of voice (I usually ignore those)"

Ha! Classic. Listening to audio books is how I take in probably 90 percent of the stories I read - er, listen to. Jim Dale was excellent on the Harry Potter books. I also really like Neil Gaiman. Not every author can read their own story effectively, but he really shines, especially on the Stardust audio book. I'm listening right now to China Mieville's Kraken which is narrated by John Lee, and he's doing a fantastic job with the very large and odd characters populating this spectacular book.

What I'm trying to say is, yes, I hear the voices. And I think it helps to have that audio reference point as a writer. It is important to know what things LOOK like on a page, yes, but I think its equally important to know how they SOUND. I come from a musical background, and I like to think a lot of my writing has a rhythmic, musical quality to it. Right or wrong, I will without hesitation skirt traditional writing rules in order to make a sentence roll from my tongue the way I want it to.

Cool post, Jon!
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Geoff :)

Have you ever heard Gaiman's Anansi Boys? It's read by British comedian/actor, Lenny Henry, who did a great job.
(no subject) - Geoffrey Young Haney - Feb. 9th, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
Nuclear Wessles! ;)

I love when characters have expressions or catchphrases that belong just to them - it's so realistic and really gives them that voice.
Feb. 9th, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)
That's one of my favorite Star Trek scenes :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 06:53 pm (UTC)
I always hear voices too (and it seems im not alone!) but keeping to the writerly/readerly ones: Yes, I hear them when Im writing and when Im reading (usually). To be honest, I never thought about it and just assumed everyone does when they read.

I've found recently that the new character I've introduced into the novel didnt really have a distinct voice or even image in my head until I worked on him through a few scenes. Now I see and hear him as if he were a real person.
Feb. 9th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
To be honest, I never thought about it and just assumed everyone does when they read.

I usually do, but when it's not there, it's a real warning sign for me.

Feb. 9th, 2011 06:54 pm (UTC)
I do hear their voices--when I read and when I write. I think you've nailed another subtle nuance of writing, Jon. I don't care what your old gran says, you're pretty dang smart!
Feb. 9th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
Lol, I've been hearing my old gran's voice in my head for a loooong time :)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:59 pm (UTC)
Scots are easy, just have him say 'hoots mon' at the start of every sentence and throw in a few references to haggis and the Loch Ness monster and readers will feel like they're in the land of thistle and porridge ;)
Feb. 9th, 2011 07:45 pm (UTC)
I sure do, Jon - and also when I write. I think Madeleine L'Engle was correct in saying that, when it's going well, a story is something that comes through you, not from you. You need to listen. And - some days you don't hear anything. Other days you realize you didn't quite get the whole message, and you have to put yourself back in the scene and try to see and hear more clearly. At least, that's how it seems to me.

And you're also right that Rowling had (has) a good ear and is quite observant. Too bad she didn't follow through as she should have on the last two books! I'm with you on loving the first five.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:59 pm (UTC)
I sure do, Jon - and also when I write.

Hehehehehehehehe :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
Oh absolutely... it's one reason why I find audiobooks so difficult to get into (hey, even the Authorial Voice sounds wrong if it doesn't sound like the Me Inside My Head :) and tend to be wary of screen adaptations of books I love...

The actual words a person uses - not only the accent and the language but the imagery, the slang, the 'family catchphrases', the grammar - it is rather unique for so many people and that's what makes it fun to listen to strangers... :) and in a written work, the actual words are the writers tool to make that fun.

It is, I admit, one of the things I enjoy about fanfic - a chance to try and make a voice the reader already knows sound like the voice in all of our heads.
Feb. 9th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
I had a real struggle with audio books at first, especially because they're a lot slower to get through than a paper book, but I'm glad I stuck with it. There are so many times when reading's impractical, but an audio book will do just fine :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
Dude! Shut up when Jon is talking, whydoncha?! Damned voices...
Feb. 9th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
Lol, leave some pigeons for me please, Clint :)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 9th, 2011 10:02 pm (UTC)
I can imagine :)
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