One of the challenges for any writer is to give each character a different voice. As a reader, in addition to an image in my head about what a character will look like, it’s important to find that distinctive tone that makes sense to me.
For example, Pappy Cantrell in the Jefferson Chene series is a country boy. Despite living in Michigan for many years, he still talks with a southern drawl and has a penchant to mix his metaphors. Expressions like ‘my daddy learned me that’ reflect not only Pappy’s upbringing but his disdain for proper grammar.
Late last week, I received the first chapter of the audio file for “Your Turn to Die”. This is with a new narrator, so I was more than a little curious as to how close he could come with making the character’s dialogue distinctive. Mel Brook’s famous line “Hope for the best. Expect the worst,” danced through my head.
I cued up the track, notepad and pen at the ready, to log the minute and second for any errors or mispronunciations. And waited.
And waited some more.
Thirty minutes later, the track ended. My darling wife, who anxiously listened in, raised her eyes in delight. “He’s good!”
There was no argument. This guy was in fact good. He used different inflections for tone of voice in close to a dozen characters that appear in the prologue and the first chapter. He nailed them all. After hearing it a second time, I still had nothing written on my notepad.
One chapter down. Twenty-five to go.
Here’s an excerpt from “Why 319?”. In this scene, Chene has approached Pappy to fill him in on a new aspect of the case, trying to find a serial killer. You can get a sense of Cantrell’s character in his comments and actions.
Cantrell absorbed the idea of the religious angle without much reaction one way or the other. During all his years with the department, he’d seen many bizarre crimes. The motivating factors were as complex as quantum physics. He gave me a nod, then wagged a finger over my shoulder. I reached back and swung his door closed.
“Y’all know the governor’s on my ass now.”
“We expected as much. But we haven’t even had the case for forty-eight hours. How are Barksdale and Jarrett doing with the latest victim?”
He shrugged and pulled a fresh cigarette from his pack. “Jarrett might just surprise us. She’s sharp. Ah expect she’s giving Barksdale fits. The boy thinks he’s in charge, but she’s workin’ him just the same.”
“We’re going to interview family and friends today. Maybe we’ll catch a break.”
Cantrell stood and with a practiced motion flipped his cigarette into the air. It floated toward the ceiling, turned over once and arrowed toward him. He leaned out slightly and caught it in his mouth by the filter. A cocky smile crossed his wrinkled face as he winked at me.
“How many hours it take you to master that trick?”
“Hell, Chene, that one’s easy. My daddy learned me that when I wasn’t but six. He said it would help me charm the ladies.”
“Does it work?”
“Every time.” He raised his lighter, then had a change of heart and walked toward the exit. “Git out of here, Chene. Go find me a killer.”
Here's a shot of what Pappy Cantrell might look like.
Buy link for Why 319?
This week's music is from the Doobie Brothers.