Tell me about Meryl Streep’s voice. Which of her performed voices do you like best? Her Julia Child in Julie and Julia, her Polish lover in Sophie’s Choice, her Danish aristocrat in Out of Africa, her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, or her bullying soprano in Florence Foster Jenkins? Tell me what magic makes one of her voices so different from the others. Is it the accent, the range, the pitch, the melody, the register, the body gestures? It’s hard to say.
And what would Streep say about how to write those voices on the page? A 2009 You Tube clip, “The Many Voices of Meryl Streep,” collected a selection of her movie voices since 1982. From the written words alone, can you hear this voice? “I’m going to try to flip this one over now, which is a rather daring thing to do. When you flip anything, you’ve just got to have the courage of your convictions….Oooh, that didn’t go very well.” How much clearer can you hear this voice if you first read that a tall, buxom, middle-aged lady stood behind the stove in her kitchen talking in a droll cultured accent? With a few hints about the character and the context, it’s easier to “hear” that voice.
You imagine the voice of Sophie Zawistowska as Streep portrayed her in 1982 more clearly if you picture her in her young twenties tilting her head to the side, talking wistfully, smiling upwards at Stingo, the young American man in Brooklyn, saying “When I was little girl, my father, um, typed and I go to sleep to that sound. It will make me feel, how do you say, secure, secure?” In Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice, he spends few words on the audible sound of her voice, relying solely on the character, context, and the content to carry her voice into our imaginations.
We readers need a few clues beyond the spoken words, but having too many clues kills the effect. Overwriting a voice leaves little room for the imagination, and the reader’s imagination is more effective at creating a voice than any detailed description. So what are the essential features that sketch a distinctive voice?
I tried looking on my shelf of how-to-write books that I’ve collected over the last twenty-five years. Out of 21 books, none had a chapter specifically addressing the writing of voices, but the common theme across the chapters on dialogue is that voice is driven by character. Begin by knowing the personalities in your story well enough that you can hear them speak in ways that reveal their character.
I tried describing some of Streep’s voices from the 2009 clip. After several feeble trains of adjectives, I came up with a variation on the game of Celebrities in which one person has to get others to guess the name of a famous person by describing the celebrity’s voice using word clues only. What makes Hitler’s voice so different from Churchill’s? Trump’s voice so different from Obama’s? What makes Stephen Hawking’s voice so mechanical? We know these voices. They rattle around in our dreams and our day-dreams. We recognize familiar voices instantly, but try telling what distinguishes one voice from another.
When I played this game with my wife, Vic gave me 14 clues before I guessed Jack Kennedy. I gave her six before she guessed Hillary’s voice. Our son Stu played this game with his wife and her parents. Their longest run took them through six clues (“melodic and rhythmical, male voice, it’s a singer, upbeat, talks about love, has an accent from a country or a religion”) to get to the correct Bob Dylan, after false stabs at Meryl Streep, John Lennon, Elton John, and Matis Yahu. Three times they guessed the correct celebrity after just two clues about their voices, and once all it took was one clue: “god-like” for the voice of James Earl Jones. Those four know each other too well! How easy or hard is it for you to guess a voice by word clues?
Faces are as complex and distinctive as voices, but easier to describe. Why are we so inarticulate when it comes to talking about something so essential to our identities as the human voice? Most of us learn to speak by imitation, not by instruction. We know voices intuitively. We learned as infants to recognize and interpret voices long before we learned to speak. We don’t have to think much about what makes a voice unless we lose it or try to train it to yodel and sing arias.
In case you’re ever afflicted with a stroke in Broca’s speech area or operatic ambitions or the compulsion to be a writer, it’s a useful exercise to think about what it takes to make a voice, and what makes each voice unique. Most of what we need to make a voice is a clear sense of the character, the context, and the content of their speech. Imagine how it would change the way you hear Julia Child if, instead of being in her kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before a WGBH camera in the 1960’s having spent twenty years in France immersed in French cooking schools, Streep’s Julia were delivering those sentences in the back of a bus to an alarmed audience of riders. Character and content depend on context.
In addition to character, content, and context, it takes anatomy to make a voice. Does understanding the anatomy of a voice help you write it? The shapes of the chest, trachea and vocal chords change with adolescence, laryngitis, and screaming. Julia Child was six feet two. When a hefty guy has a tiny voice, it’s often surprising, maybe amusing, usually revealing. The mouth, the pharynx, the nose, and the sinuses are “resonators” for our voices. If you pinch your nose or fill your sinuses with fluid, you change the pitch and the resonance of your voice. The tightness or looseness of the soft palate varies with culture and with personality and with emotional tone. Meryl Streep likely tightened her soft palate a tad for French Lieutenant’s Woman and loosened up plenty for Prairie Home Companion.
An article about our senator in the July 24, 2017, Washington Post begins with these lines: “They could hear him before they could see him — that low, rumbling outboard motor of a voice. It could only be Sen. Sherrod Brown.” Five paragraphs down Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) says Brown’s voice sounds “as if he’d been hit in the throat by a hockey puck.” There’s a lesson here. When it comes to describing voices, metaphor is more powerful than analytic details.
To sketch distinctive voices on the page, we first have to know our characters so well we can hear them speak. A voice that reflects gender, age, culture, and physique comes to life when it also changes rhythm, speed, and content with shifts in context and state of mind. Writing distinct voices works best when the writing comes fast, by intuition, and prods the reader’s imagination. You can bring a voice to life with a hockey puck.