Hearing Voices: Characterization and Language

Jennifer duBois

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 182.

Much of what makes a fictional voice compelling comes from authorial imagination rather than technical competence: A narrator needs something to say and some reason for saying it. Figuring out what exactly all this will sound like involves many considerations. A writer must contend with inflections of dialect as well as the particularities of idiolect: favorite words, tics, malapropisms, and idioms that characterize a speaker’s personal language.

When I talk about idiolect with my writing students, I use myself as an example: Imagine a person from Western Massachusetts (“soda,” not “pop;” “rotary,” not “roundabout”) raised by an ancient father who was himself raised in poverty (“They’re gonna send us to the poor house!”) in upstate New York (“He’s got the nerve of a canal horse!”) before volunteering for World War II (“That’s enough for the whole Russian army!”). She spent many, many years studying and teaching in MFA programs (“What are the stakes?”) and swears a lot—even in the classroom (probably partly because she’s never been made to feel she doesn’t belong in one). She doesn’t understand the definition of “belie” and so avoids using it in conversation. She can’t pronounce “elegiac” but sometimes says it anyway. She never uses the phrase “beg the question” wrong because pretty much all she remembers from her undergraduate study of philosophy is how not to do that. After living in Texas for ten years, she very occasionally attempts a “y’all” but never, never makes it sound convincing.

Voice, in a real sense, contains an entire biography.

I tried to keep this in mind while writing my fourth novel, The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions. The book follows the story of Angela, a linguist-turned-speech-therapist who uses a controversial technology to communicate with a nonverbal client, Sam. Angela and Sam fall in love; Angela is arrested over questions of Sam’s ability to consent. As the novel’s sole first-person narrator, Angela has a stranglehold on the reportage and interpretation of events, and the whole book hinges on the question of how much readers should trust Angela’s perception of reality. Are she and Sam tragic lovers, as Angela fervently believes, or has she exploited a severely disabled man? Angela’s voice had to not only characterize her, but provide subtle context about her trustworthiness. When she tells us who she is, she tells us who she wants us to think she is—while also letting slip some things that she isn’t aware of (or maybe doesn’t want to be).

When thinking about voice, I often turn to the work of Zadie Smith, particularly her novel NW (Penguin Press, 2012), which showcases her masterful ear for languages and the interesting ways they jostle against each other. Every character’s speech in NW is astoundingly well-heard: Francophone Michel’s English-as-a-second-language (“more easy, some bullshit like this”); working-class Leah’s mispronunciations (“St. Loo-shun. St. Looshee-yan?”); aging addict-heiress Annie, whose half-ironic, elevated diction (“ludicrous,” “terribly bright,” “don’t be such a bore”) sounds straight out of Evelyn Waugh. Even the nonhuman entities in NW are given deeply characterizing language: The television speaks in cliches, passive constructions, and bullshit; the Madonna statue speaks with the precision of written language, using words and phrases like “exempt,” “mealy-mouthed,” and “simpering.” She speaks like she is not speaking at all.

I tried to keep this variance in mind while writing The Last Language. Angela’s diction is often stately and elevated when she speaks about her intellectual commitments in narration. In dialogue, however, her register shifts with the context. She begins her first conversation with Sam’s mother, Sandi, in a professional, anodyne language, then begins to ape Sandi’s more casual tone as she sees this first way of speaking isn’t effective. Sandi is informal and a little vulgar from the get-go (“Fuck the shart weasel,” she says of her ex); Angela is more cautious and evasive. She hides the fact that she, like Sandi, smokes, and—unlike me—she doesn’t really swear: Angela is a person who has been made to feel out of place in the academic and professional world.  

Yet the differences between the characters’ voices may be less important—and less revealing—than their similarities. Readers will probably quickly notice the fact that Sam, once he starts to communicate through experimental technology, sounds much more like Angela than his mother—which could be a telling clue about who is really speaking. Then again, Sam is more widely read than his mother; his sister, Moira, a college student, sounds pretty academic too. Does Sam speak like a person Angela could have invented—some precise analogue of her—someone who is not Angela, but somehow of and belonging to her? Maybe so. But whether this is because she’s invented his language or found true love with a person who speaks her own is the central question of the novel.


Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.

Art: Pavan Trikutam