Speech and Dialogue
Speech is one of the most direct and over-the-top ways through which John Irving creates his highly-memorable characters. The most obvious example is Owen. It's not just what he says – he's a pretty astute little guy, and speaks with the maturity and vocabulary of an adult even as a ten-year-old – it's how he says it. Owen has an incredibly distinctive voice. The novel's first line draws our attention to his strange way of speaking: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice" (1.1). Basically, he shouts through his nose. His voice isn't just memorable to the other characters, who can actually hear him. We, as readers, get to experience his strange nasal shouting because all of his dialogue is WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
It's not just Owen, though, who has a distinctive way of speaking. Another great example of John Irving's use of speech in this novel is Rev. Lewis Merrill, the pastor at the Congregational Church. Rev. Merrill has a stutter, but he doesn't have it all the time. Rather, his stutter acts as a kind of barometer for his level of self-confidence and conviction at any given moment. When Rev. Merrill is nervous or doubtful, he stutters like crazy. When he feels secure, however, he speaks smoothly and firmly. This is sort of an ingenious manipulation of speech on John Irving's part, because after we learn about Rev. Merrill's secret past, we can look back on a bunch of scenes in the novel and look at the types of situations that make him especially nervous (hint: it's usually when he's thinking about Tabby).
Physical appearances are pretty big in this novel; in fact, we have tons more to say about them under "Themes." That said, let's look at how John Irving uses them to tell us more about our characters. Again, Owen sort of sticks out like a sore thumb here. Owen is sort of small and mousy. He never grows taller than five feet; he has huge ears that stick out and a sharp-looking nose. He's so pale that his skin seems transparent. When we think of Owen, we kind of think of Ross Perot's head on a young child's body (feel free to do some Google image searches if you're like, "huh?"). What's interesting is that, even though Owen is so small and seemingly delicate, he ultimately saves others through an amazing act of physical strength. It almost seems like John Irving created Owen small on purpose – just to throw us off a little bit.
What's really interesting about physical appearances in A Prayer for Owen Meany is the way that we never really figure out what John looks like. We learn about what everyone's appearances in this novel, except for his! It really throws us off that he looks around constantly trying to figure out who his birth father is without ever being like, "Oh, yeah, that guy that I see every day looks exactly like me!" For a book that creates such vivid images of what characters look like, it's a little strange that we never "see" John.
Family life is one of the most distinctive ways in which Irving differentiates John and Owen. In spite of the fact that he spends most of the novel not knowing who his birth father is, John seems to have an amazing family life. His mother adores him until the day she dies. His stepfather, Dan, couldn't love him more if he were his own son. Even though she's kind of a crotchety old woman, Harriet is an extremely doting grandma. The scene in Johnny's room after Tabby's funeral is of the greatest indicators of how supportive his family is. Everyone wants Johnny to find a second home with him or her. Aunt Martha tells him that he can come to Sawyer Depot whenever he wants; Harriet tells him that he can have his old room back; Dan says he wants nothing more than for Johnny to continue to live with him. John's relationship with Dan is particularly special; he regards Dan as the best father a boy ever had, and he's not even really his dad.
Owen, on the other hand, has what seems to be a particularly odd family life. In many respects, we feel sorry for him. His parents don't really seem to care about what he does or where he goes. He sleeps over Johnny's house whenever he wants – his parents don't even seem to notice when he comes home. Yet, it isn't necessarily because Owen's parents don't care about him; it seems that they are genuinely afraid of him, and as a result he tends to rule the roost. Of course, we find out later exactly why his parents regard him the way they do. Still, when we look at family life as a way of learning more about our characters, we see how their lives at home really set John and Owen apart from one another.