This is a Sunday Craft post that’s turning up on a Wednesday. The VISION list has been discussing how writers find their character’s voice, so I thought I’d ask the RORees for their insights.
How do I find a character’s voice? Well, basically, by not looking for it. I’d never try to envisage a character’s voice as something that could exist all by itself – I mean, turns of phrase, speech patterns in a vacuum? I only start to discover how a character speaks when I try them out interacting with someone else. Then it becomes a question of how they try to influence others, bounce off others, show a particular face to the world … and that’s what produces their individual voice. Character determines interaction with others determines way of speaking to others determines typical turns of phrase and speech patterns. That’s the sequence that works for me.
I’m talking about a voice within a third person narrative, of course. It’s different in a first person narrative when the character is the narrator. I’ve just had huge struggles over a story called “Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism” for an international anthology called Ghosts by Gaslight, and my struggles were 90% over getting the right voice for the narrator. It had to be a 19th century voice, therefore formal and proper, but at the same time intense and emotional. A difficult balancing act – and I began the story the story five times over before getting it right. Maybe that’s my only advice for a first person narrator’s voice – keep on experimenting, however long it takes, because if you haven’t got the voice, you haven’t got anything.
I’m just coming to the end of a trilogy that’s more complex than anything else I’ve ever written, largely because of voice. I have several POV characters, most third person and a few first person, and it’s hard work to keep them all feeling like they have a distinct voice.
My personal ideal is that you should be able to tell whose eyes the scene is being shown through even if they’re not named (though of course I do always name them, I’m not that mean!). My main trick for capturing voice is vocabulary – I like to have a few key words that are specific to a particular character, something they use more that others don’t. I also like to use phrasing that links back to their past or their interests – so my dressmaker sees the world in craft metaphors, the performer from a small fishing town uses theatrical comparison and sea shanty style insults, my aristocrat has a higher sense of entitlement and impatience and a complete tomcat sensibility which means he wants to have sex with everyone he meets…
There is no perfect way, but I do like to have a few things to cling to with each character that makes me feel as if I am in their head, and telling this part of the story through their voice. Swearing is a great key to each character – some characters swear more than others, some more creatively, some prissily, some boldly, and some not at all. Though as with anything you can overdo that kind of difference – you don’t want to end up as a parody of your own techniques! I hope I get the balance right.
Having said all that I am REALLY looking forward to my next book which will only have one POV character, first person, and one single voice to capture. Oh, the luxury!
Sometimes a character’s voice is there from the beginning. Halley was like that. I did a little tweaking in the middle of writing Time Future because the plot changed greatly, but basically from the moment I wrote the prologue—which stayed pretty much the same without rewriting—she was ‘there’. In my head. Which was a bit scary.
Tacs (a character in my present project) is like that, too. I’ve never had to struggle to wonder what he’s going to say or do. With these characters, the right words tend to come out easily.
Sometimes a character’s voice develops as I write—the more I get to know them, the easier it is to express their thoughts. You have to court them. Murdoch was like this, and also Ishihara in Less Than Human. It’s an enjoyable process, this getting to know a character. It may involve quite a bit of rewriting, but that’s part of the fun. The words don’t come out as easily with these characters—yesterday I spent a good 15 minutes (I was also boiling an egg at the time, that’s how I know) finding the right two lines of description from a certain character’s point of view.
I think that ‘finding’ a character’s voice is a cumulative process, not a point of ‘aha!’ discovery. The more time you spend getting it right in the beginning (like my 15 minutes), the easier the words come as the story progresses. It’s as though the character’s voice wears a path in your subconscious, and when you step onto that path, like a record needle placed in the groove, you can’t go wrong. This is another reason I spend a bit of time each writing session re-reading previous passages—it helps set the needle in the right groove.
Trent Jamieson: (Warning, Trent was overcome by an attack of Whimsy!)
The Tournée Method
For this method you need at least six or seven jars, with their lids as well. Make sure you remove their labels, and wash the jars and their lids thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly they must be as clean as possible.
You will also need a very sharp knife, and I mean Very sharp, the sort of blade that will cut you if you if you look at it from the wrong angle. Yes, that sharp. A tournée or a bird’s beak knife as they are commonly known is best, though you may need it professionally sharpened. Most supermarkets sell them, but if you cannot find one there, try a shop that supplies kitchen items to chefs.
With your tournée knife, and your jars, (careful, don’t break them, the jars must be whole, the lid making a perfect seal) walk to the nearest bus stop or train station.
As you probably know, the four winds of the world gather there, there’s nothing they delight in more than blowing open people’s umbrellas, or mixing rubbish, dirt and air in whirling bursts to scatter over commuters’ finest work outfits. More importantly the four winds contain all the voices of the world.
Sit at the stop (or station), switch off your Ipod and listen. Listen in the most profound way you can, above the sound of approaching buses (or trains). Strain your ears. Listen to the voices of the world. You’ll find if they’re fast or slow or angry. You’ll know if they hate or they love. If they speak in long slow sentences or rush as rapid as racehorse, a real thoroughbred. You’ll know if they are educated or not, if they like to swear or sweeten their words.
Now, when you have found what you are looking for, be quick, and be subtle. Open a jar, slip out your knife, and (careful not cut yourself of or others) slice the voice from the wind. You don’t need it all, just a sliver.
Fill each jar with a different voice, some will be heavy some will be light, when you have enough take them home and set the jars on your desk, or wherever it is that you work. Do not shake the jars! That would be cruel.
Each voice should last you at least six months, possibly twelve, enough time to get a novel written, enough time to know what that voice is saying, what it’s thinking. By the end you should be able to close your eyes and hear that voice even when it isn’t there.
At that stage you should be able to empty the jars, rinse, clean, then repeat as required.
Don’t you just love, Trent?
But what’s he’s saying is true. All the voices in the world are out there. You just need to listen. I catch a lot of trains. Commuter trains tend to be serious business, but trains at off peak times are real microcosm of the world. I listen and sometimes people talk to me. I must have a friendly face because people tell me the most amazing things.
So there you are, some insights on how writers find their characters’ voices.