Thursday, July 3, 2014

In His Head - Nailing Character Voice

Voice, voice, voice. We keep hearing that this is very important in the novel, but how many different definitions have you heard of voice? I've come across a couple of hundred. Yes, I'm a blog junkie. The problem is that voice is really hard to explain. So I've decided that it might actually better to explain HOW TO GET IT. What strides do you take to nail the right voice in your novel and keep it consistent? Do you do character chats? Interviews? Take on another persona and worry about the split personality disorder later? (I don't recommend this). What is the magical formula? What are your character voice fails? Ever done such a good job finding your character's voice that YOU starting talking like your character? (Another thing I don't recommend, especially if your character has a colorful vocabulary and you live in the bible belt.)

Lisa: I do SO many interviews. Seriously, I'm up to seven for each main character since starting my eighth novel. But they're so great if you do it right. Here's the trick: answer them in first person. It doesn't matter if you're writing in third person or second, dual POV... Just answer in first person in exactly the way you feel like your character would.

"But, Lisa, I don't know how he'd answer. That's the point of me reading this blog post."

Then answer as closely as you can. GUESS what he'd say. Soon it will come to you as more absolute, more concrete than a guessing game. In the end, his voice should roll off your tongue (brain) with no effort at all. The reason I do so many interviews is because I need to know this person's history in order to know how he would talk or think. If he is sixteen years old, I need to know what has happened in those sixteen years in order to get his voice thoroughly in my brain. Nope, it's not a good idea to include all those sixteen years worth of backstory in your novel, but knowing it is going to completely work in your favor as his author. I could include links to interviews, but I don't keep a list. It's too easy to type in "character interview" into your search engine and get them. Plus, different ones each time keeps me on my toes.

Also, this isn't an interview but it's always good to do a Myers & Briggs work-up on your character. Sometimes stuff doesn't always match up to the character you want to have (most of the time it does, though), but it's a very good start and keeps you from grabbing psychologically contradicting character traits.

Dan: Great topic, Lisa! Voice is so important for a new writer. It's what makes your submissions stand out from the rest of the pack, but I agree, it's very hard to define. But there are some mechanics of establishing a character's voice. Does he speak formally, perhaps reflecting class or education level? Is she sincere or sarcastic? I'm a fan of writing short pieces (500 words to a short story) from a character's point of view (first person) to really get into his or her head. Writing character monologues -- ones that won't be used in the main story or book -- is another useful pre-writing exercise, as discussed on this week's Writing Excuses podcast.

Caitlin:  I come from the (made up) Gabriel Byrne school of writing. He once said this about acting: "It's when you present yourself as truthfully as you can, in a given situation, that you are being that character. Even though you're being yourself."

It's the opposite of method acting. Instead of taking on another persona, you reach deeper into particular facets of your own persona. So, basically, I already know all of my charecters intimately because, in one way or antoher, they're me.

In terms of getting their voices right, I do something similar to an interview. I free write responses to different prompts. I've found the prompts in The 90-Day Novel to be especially helpful.

In terms of finding/refining my voice in general, I think it helps to closely read other writers who have strong voices. This doesn't have to be fiction. In fact, the writer I'd most like to emulate in terms of diction and tone, Amy Leach, writes essays about nature. While reading, I pay special attention to their word choices and rhythm and think about why I like it. I might even try to write a new sentence that has the same grammatical structure just to get into the right head space.

Karlie: I'm not as heavy on the interviews as I should be, and I'm afraid it shows sometimes. I'm going to print out some good ones and make myself sit down and do them.

I also love doing the prompt responses! That has helped me tremendously - it's a great way to get a handle on the character's personality and reactions, too.

The one that threatens to land me a one-way ticket to the funny farm is also my favorite - actually speaking the character's lines out loud, facial expressions and hand gestures included. I can get a good feel for the emotion that way, and also refine the dialogue.

Excellent post, Lisa!

Writers, what's your plan of attack to nail voice? Readers, have you ever read something that had the voice all wrong? Do you have an idea how writers might improve character dialogue and monologue? Do share!


  1. I come up with what I want for the character in broad-brush terms, and then refine them downwards as I write. Someone might start off as 'mad scientist obsessed with measuring things', 'an unholy alliance between Raskolnikov and d'Artagnan', 'guy with a bull totem in a chinashop', but they usually grow more and more subtle over the course of my work.

    One thing the blog post mentions is interviewing --- I found that I walked around my own world seeing it through my characters' eyes. My historical 'gaslamp' fantasy characters marvelled at cheap and abundant fast food and, because the series culminates in a communist revolution, I had some interesting and rather uncomfortable experiences while on holiday in Lithuania at the museum of the Soviet occupation. So getting to know them is knowing how they understand our world as much as me understanding theirs.

    I'm also fond of Emile Zola's idea that what he simply did with his characters is put them in a room together and just observed their behaviour. Although I didn't expect the interview process to turn out like it did, I've experienced this myself and some of my best work has been spontaneous (one story gained an extra complication because one character refused to do what I wanted them to do). Then again, I'm a gardener and not an architect --- have premise, will travel. So I keep the prep time to a minimum and just write, and then go back and tone down some of the outlandish behaviour in keeping with the tone of the series.

    1. I love your way of putting it, Louise. I agree that getting in the character's head is the place to be to get voice right. There are just different ways of getting there. :) Traveling is always an option!

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