“The baby owls thought (all owls think a lot) – ‘I think she’s gone hunting,’ said Sarah. ‘To get us our food!’ said Percy. ‘I want my mommy!’ said Bill.” – Owl Babies by Martin Waddell
All parents of small children know there are some nights you dread story time. When your little angel asks you to read Elmo Blows His Nose (I made that title up, but you know they publish things like this all the time) or some other equally unimpressive and unimaginative story for the thousandth time, all you can do is suffer through. You remind yourself that you’re spending time with your child and instilling a life-long love of reading (at least that’s what the research says).
But there are those nights when the book really is a wonderful story and a joy to read. I always felt that way about Owl Babies. The premise is simple and taps into every young child’s need for family and security. The illustrations are dark and earthy, perfect for a story about owls in the woods. But what I really loved about reading Owl Babies to my children was the fun I got to have playing with voices.
Sarah, Percy, and Bill are siblings as unique as my own children. Each has a different personality and way of relating to the news of their missing mother. Sarah always sounds so grown up in my head. I give her a steady, logical tone. Percy jumps on whatever bandwagon of thought Sarah voices, only he is a little younger and more excitable. That always factors into the way I read his lines. Then there’s Bill. Poor little, nearly hysterical Bill. The baby of the owl family. Each consecutive “I want my mommy!” gets a little more desperate when I read his lines. And their differences each spoke to my children in different ways. Each child had an owl sibling they related to most because the author took time to make them unique.
They may be owls in a children’s book, but what made it a joy to read Owl Babies to my children is something we need to remember in our own writing. Each character has their own personality, their own sound. The rhythm and speed with which they speak is unique. Even the area they came from plays a part in how they sound. (I can’t help but think of the line from Sweet Home Alabama. You know the one. “Honey, just cause I talk slow doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”) And a character’s actions before, during, and after they speak can highlight their differences even more.
It’s important to consider all of these things when writing dialog for a character. If something they say is out of their norm, it’s important to note the difference and give clues as to why it happened. Is the uneducated, poor serving girl trying to impress the rich, handsome duke? Her speech will be different when addressing him than when she is in the privacy of her own hovel. Is the bear of a lawman dealing with a small, frightened child? He may lower himself to the child’s level and speak in softer, easier tones to coax the child into doing what is needed. But when he’s interrogating the culprit, he’s back to barking orders, red face and all.
When authors take the time to understand their character’s way of speaking and interacting with the world around them, the reader gets a more well-rounded, relatable character. It works whether that character is a person or a baby owl. By leaving the cookie cutters behind and letting each character be their own person, we give our readers more to relate to in our story. The more they relate, the more the pages will turn, and the more the messages of our stories will be heard.
By the Book: It’s important to remember God gifted each of us with unique personalities, interests, and experiences. Sometimes it’s hard, but try to take time to appreciate these differences I the people you interact with each day. When it’s especially hard, make it a practice to think about the difference you are having trouble with and turn it around. When could that trait come in handy? What situation might benefit from having that personality type? Thank God for His foresight to make us each uniquely suited for the purpose He has for us.