Friday, April 10, 2009

Finding Your Character's Voice

This is probably the most conscious aspect of voice, adjusting your voice to convey a specific, fictional character. It’s the part where you climb into the character’s skin.

One thing that I’ve learned I need to understand in order to make my characters breathe on the page is what piece of me is in that character. What of my own core emotional truths does this character have? This is usually the key for me to an authentic character voice.

The truth is, pieces of ourselves show up in all our work. I have been surprised many times by unplanned pieces of me that show up on the page, usually spotted long after the book went to print and I acquired some distance from the story. Since this happens even when we don’t intend it to, we might as well consciously choose which parts we include and let them do some of the heavy lifting for us.

It is entirely possible, easy even, to write a complete story using only your author or story voice. In fact, this often happens. That’s what happened to me with the first draft of Beastologist II, I wrote it from my head and heart, not my characters’.

But how do you develop that characters’ voice?

Well, if we agree that Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language, then to evoke a real-seeming, authentic character we need to understand their emotional truths, personal wisdom, and use of language. And while some of ourselves will be in them, they will in large part be wildly different from us, not unlike how kids have some of their parents in them, but are also their own unique selves.

This is where backstory comes in. Not because it belongs in the story—it doesn’t! Or only the very littlest bit you can get away with. No, we need all that backstory because authors need to understand what emotional truths and personal wisdom our character has acquired throughout their lives. We need to know his formative experiences, emotional scars and wounds, hopes and fears, what sort of environment he’s grown up in, all those things go into creating our character. In order to get him to live on the page, he has to have a fully developed life of his own in order for us to be able to nail his worldview and, therefore, his voice.

I’m not suggesting we have to account for every moment of his life before he shows up on page one, but definitely the big emotional events that have shaped him.

Personally, I don’t find those character worksheets that ask what color his hair and eyes are, and what pets and hobbies and quirks he has, all that helpful.

What I need to understand is WHY my character has a ferret for a pet and WHY he has a constant tic under his left eye and WHY collecting boogers is his favorite—only?—hobby.

I often joke about not knowing what color my character’s eyes are because I’m too busy looking through them, not at them.

I think one of the secrets to getting this strong character voice is using deep point of view, going deep into the character’s head so that it is HIS perspective that colors the story. Again, Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree is a great example of this.

But how do we get deep inside our character’s head?

For me it’s usually character journaling—creating a “journal” written by my character in which he confesses and contemplates his deepest thoughts. Almost like a therapy session. I'll often do a "therapy session" with the character on how he feels about the plot point that just occurred in the story--that's where I find his emotional juice.

Whenever a story feels flat to me or has flat spots, I go deep. I ask what is the core emotion the hero is experiencing in this scene? And why? Then, more importantly, have I managed to get it on the page?

Either later on today or sometime this weekend, I'll post the characterization worksheet that I use to help me to fully understand my character.


Sherrie Petersen said...

I've tried using those worksheets and I totally agree -- eye color isn't helping me figure out motivation. But developing the back story is fun. It's fitting all these pieces together and discovering how they influence each other even when it's not written directly on the page. Sometimes I don't even do it until I've started writing the story. Once I've figured out the voice, I can delve more into who they were before I started writing about them.

Robin L said...


I agree that figuring out that backstory is one of the fun parts of the writing process. Love it.

I also think you bring up an excellent point--writing or putting together the story isn't always linear. Like you, I'll often begin a mss without having figured this stuff out yet. Sometimes it's not until I've actually started writing the story that I learn what it is I'll need to know about my characters.

Katherine Grace Bond said...

Ditto on the character worksheets! (Though I liked the one you provided for the 4/11 post) I loved your comment about looking through your character's eyes instead of figuring out what color they are. And YES on "what pieces of us are in the character?" Great series, which I'll share with my teenage novel-writing students!

Robin L said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed the Voice series, Katherine! And here's hoping your teen novel writing students do too!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, this is real helpful.

I find there's one character (in my first WIP I'm working on now) who I'm afraid of approaching (my technique is to interview them). She's a good person. She's great. I feel I've lost her in the writing somehow (probably because my antagonists are grabbing me); the fear has to do with "the unknown."

Are you ever afraid of your therapy sessions with your characters? Or has experience made the process easier? Or am I just alone in this oddity? :)

~ Ruth