Character Voice & Individuality: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the most eloquently written novel I’ve read since McEwan’s Atonement. Luckily, it’s far less depressing (not at all depressing, in fact, despite a theme of death carrying the first two scenes). Somehow, the narrative maintains a sense of levity and humor, even in moments we might expect to be… moodier. One of the greatest strengths I’ve found in the writing so far is the texture and individuality of character voice.

Take a look at the correspondence between our protagonists, Cora and Luke, presented in the same order in the book:


I’m going to deprive myself the pedantic pleasure of exploring every semantic, pragmatic, syntactic, and lexical difference between the letters (and the respective voices), and instead, I’ll point out two obvious differences. (Sigh.)

  1. Word count. 416 vs. 59. Luke’s response is about 1/7 the length of Cora’s.
  2. Terms of endearment/expressions of affection. I counted 8 in Cora’s and 0 in Luke’s. We might be tempted to explain this difference with unrequited love, but if you’ve read the preceding 69 pages, you’ll know that’s not true. In fact, we know that Luke believes himself to be in love with Cora, while Cora has, as of yet, failed to betray any romantic attachment to her dear imp whatsoever.

So how do we summarize what makes them different? Voice.

Dissecting and quantifying the elements of a character’s speech or written dialogue is unlikely to be helpful in creating or gauging individualities, but this exercise certainly illustrates Perry’s ability to replicate a crucial truth about the human voice:

Individuals think, and therefore, speak and write differently.

Sometimes these differences are attributable to gender: Studies comparing male and female language have revealed distinctions in the distribution of certain types of words (e.g., descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs) and utterances (e.g., requests over commands), as well as the subconscious intentions that underlie such language choices. The speech of U.S. women, for example, tends to be characterized by utterances that create or reinforce solidarity between speakers, whereas U.S. men’s speech often creates or reinforces lateral social distance, reflecting perceived differences in power.

But, importantly, it’s not just gender that makes the difference. Character voices with individuality betray personality, emotional hang-ups, moods, ulterior motives, cultural backgrounds, social class, education and profession, the relationship between the characters speaking, etc.

If your editor has warned you that the voice of your characters are flat or that they lack individuality, consider the dramatic differences in Perry’s example. Luke uses no pet names, no intensifiers, no formatting for emphasis, and absolutely no redundancy. He is succinct, almost terse. But his letter isn’t lacking in humor, nor does it fail to reveal perhaps a little more than he intended to about his feelings for Cora. His addressee, on the other hand, writes with deep description of setting and emotion, even if only exaggerated to make a point. She repeats herself multiple times and her wordiness provides a stark contrast to Luke’s economy of words.

As I get to know these characters, I like to imagine that, although their letters are different in scope and size, Luke spent no less time composing his letter, at least in thought, than Cora did. As a reader, I project such meaning because the individuality of character voices creates, in the mind, a world with two unique individuals with subconscious (or otherwise) agendas, hopes, desires, and tells.

Can you think of any other brilliant literary examples of voices that breathe life-like vibrancy into their characters? Please share!

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