Besotted Voce – A few (hundred) words on character voice

Voices-graphic-2

No matter with whom you speak, to an outside observer, the two of you sound different.

I’m not talking about the pitch or timber of your voices—although those likely are different—but rather those other factors that make your speech distinct: cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

For five years, I worked as an editor and writer on a couple magazines in Washington, DC, and over that time, I found that I could tell which of my workmates wrote which articles without looking at their bylines…even without our names, the pieces had our fingerprints all over them.

How Mark Lesney opened an article was very different from the way Nancy McGuire would.

Mike Felton explained his thesis very differently from David Filmore.

And the two Randys were polar opposites in sentence construction: Mr. Frey being pithy, while Mr. Willis would wax poetically at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Some might argue that these differences reflect variations in style, but I believe the situation is less superficial than style. Instead, it reflects who we are as individuals; our personalities, our experiences, our beliefs, and our feelings both emotional and physical. We speak/write as the people we are at that particular moment. I as me and you as you (this sentence screams for a “Goo-goo goo-jube”).

Ideally, this same variety of voice should occur in the fictional characters we create, whether for screenplays, novels, short stories, sketches or whatever.

With all but the shortest lines of dialogue, a reader or listener should be able to tell which lines correspond to the same speaker even in the absence of any overt identifying marks such as the character’s name.

A simple example: Despite achieving the same goal in response to another person, the following lines say them differently:

“You’re nuts.”

“You are insane.”

“You’re one crazy motherfucker.”

“That, sir, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”

* silent stare *

With these five lines, we see differences in:

  • Relative status (e.g., tone)
  • Degrees of personal control (e.g., length, use of contractions)
  • Emotional state (e.g., length, word choice)
  • Possibly educational or social background (e.g., vocabulary, use of jargon)

It can be a challenge for one mind (the writer’s) to create several distinct voices. It is a form of consciously willed multiple personality disorder. Thus, early drafts of a literary work may sound flat because too many of the characters are speaking with the writer’s voice rather than their own.

In theory, this is an easy thing to fix during revisions. Simply take the sentence and knowing what you do about your character—his or her emotional and psychological state, status, social and educational background, life experiences, physical challenges—make the line more accurately reflect how the character would speak.

One complicating factor is that a seemingly simple change in response by one character may elicit a change in the response of the dialogue partner(s). I am likely to respond very differently if presented with any of the five reactions above. And thus, the writer has triggered a change-reaction that reverberates through the scene.

A second complicating factor is that the change in dialogue may also need to be paralleled with a change in physical action. A high-status character is more apt to be purposeful in her actions and responses, whereas a low-status character may be more physically erratic or perhaps flinching in his response. And again, the change-reaction echoes through the scene.

This may sound daunting. It isn’t…but it is a lot of work.

The trick is becoming comfortable with the many voices you need as a writer. We all start with our own voice, the omnipotent godhead that creates the fictional universe; but the trick comes in developing the skills to inhabit other bodies, other souls as you create other characters and then being able to shift back and forth as required without going insane (well, not fully insane, at any rate).

My best advice to any writer who struggles with this is not to take yet another writing class, but rather to take an improv class or several. Despite the terror that this advice may elicit in some (most?) of you, I can think of no better way of understanding—and more importantly, exercising—the differences between different characters.

You’ll quickly find improv is not about funny; rather it is about truth. And once you’re comfortable with experiencing the truth of a character, the rest of this is much less daunting.

 

As seems to be a routine now, today’s post was prompted by the amazing words of Marsha Mason and the Why The Face blog she posted earlier today.

PS The magazines from my Washington days were Modern Drug Discovery and Today’s Chemist At Work (because Today’s Chemist in the Boudoir was already taken).

Writing for puppets

Monty meets Muppets!

Monty meets Muppets!

As some of you may know, I am one of the comedy writers for a sketch show called SomeTV!, which is currently in production in Toronto. As our godhead Nic likes to describe it, the show takes the no-sacred-cows approach of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and combines it with the playful anarchy of The Muppet Show (no hubris here, eh?).

Now, for some, that may sound like the greatest writing gig ever. Those some have clearly never written for puppets.

Human actors—or as we call them, Fleshies—can be tricky enough to deal with. Prone to completely misunderstanding the point of a scene or sketch, they tend to have difficulty learning lines that make no sense to them.

Luckily, their natural insecurity, despite the outward facing ego, means that they can be molded into subservience, if only in two- to five-minute chunks, the longest most are willing to go without checking their make-up or cell phones for calls from their managers.

At their core, Fleshies are the rhesus monkeys of the performance world, clinging to each other for some semblance of affection but ultimately willing to give that up for warmth and sustenance.

Not so puppet actors, aka the Felts or Felties.

Flesh v Felt

These are the apex predators of the performance world and should always be treated as such. Sure, they look cute and cuddly, with their giant heads, bulging eyes and disarming colours, but that’s exactly what they want you to think.

You don’t write for Felties so much as start a sentence that is perpetually interrupted with ideas or lines the bastards think are smarter, funnier, crazier.

Fleshies forget their lines because they’re not too bright…Felties “forget” because they are malicious egotists.

Adding to the challenge is the near-impossibility of figuring out a Feltie. He, she or it is the poster-child for multiple personality disorder.

You think you’re writing a scene for a young Spanish girl, when out of nowhere a tall Jovian Codswadder shows up to take the scene in an entirely new direction. (To this day, the only thing I know about Codswadders is they come from Jupiter, where given the crushing gravity, their height makes no sense.)

Not the home of young Spanish girls

NOT the home of young Spanish girls

It’s like dealing with someone with hyperactive comedic Tourettes, and trust me, I’ve taken enough improv classes in Toronto to know what that looks like.

Felties are also astoundingly lazy creatures. Sure, they look frenetic on the television screens, but in reality, these buggers will literally not lift a finger without someone doing it for them. Our show has an entire team of Feltie fluffers whose entire job is to see to the every-last needs of these freaks. We’re talking major OCD: obsessive-compulsive demands.

Trust me, the dictionary writers of the world have the concept of “puppet master” completely backwards.

Masterclass

To be fair, the Felties do sometimes come up with lines that are funnier than the stuff I wrote. But on the flip side, they get away with lines that no intelligent Fleshie could ever hope to pull off.

This has two impacts: 1) the Feltie doesn’t have to try very hard to get a laugh, and 2) they can be as crude, rude and insulting as they want, knowing everyone just thinks “awwww, how cute”.

There’s a reason you don’t hear a lot of puppet radio programs…the shit they come up with is repugnant.

NPR = Nasty Puppet Radio

NPR = Nasty Puppet Radio

So, why do I stay? Why do I continue to write for these self-glorified hand-warmers?

Most days, I don’t know.

But then the rent comes due and I realize that my best chances at succeeding as a “comedy writer” is to have my words (or some semblance thereof) come out of a Feltie’s mouth…and those lint-sucking leeches know it, too.

 

SomeTV! is being produced by Lemon Productions Inc.

Like us on Facebook: SomeTV!Lemon Productions Inc.

Follow us on Twitter: @SomeTVNews

Indirect influences

Image

I naturally speak with one voice. If pressed, I can speak with a second, more professional voice; the one that presents concepts to advertising clients or interviews corporate executives for a magazine. But most of the time, I speak with one voice that uses a vocabulary and attitude established over my many decades of life.

I think this is largely the case for everyone, which is why it is not surprising that people tend to write stories with a series characters that can largely sound the same. The protagonist is typically quite distinct. The antagonist is often distinct. But after that, I don’t know that I could tell who was speaking if I didn’t read the names.

These secondary characters, by their very nature, are not our focus as writers, so they tend to have the least developed back stories even in our heads. Other than age or gender, what makes the paperboy different from the local sheriff from the school teacher?

The same thing that makes you different from me. Our experiences, past and present.

One of the tricks for informing a character that I learned in improv was to endow a character with a trait that only you as the performer knew, and ideally a trait that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene that was developing.

In one exercise, I decided that my character had a bad right ankle, so that every time I took a step, my ankle would cause me pain. I didn’t hobble or verbally express the pain with either an “Ow” or “Would you slow down, my ankle hurts”.

The pain was expressed, however, in how my character responded to his environment and the other characters in the scene. What might have been a middle-of-the-road character suddenly became a terse character, someone in a hurry to get things over with, quick to anger or frustrate, less apt to engage in activities.

The bonus aspect of the exercise, for me, was that my fellow improv performers quickly got and responded to my character, but when pressed, could not exactly say why I behaved as I did.

Now change that ankle pain to a foot orgasm (read about it this week online) and see where that character would go (probably jogging).

The sore ankle had no impact on what role the character played in the scene, but more in HOW that character performed that role. And this made the character stand out from all of the others.

I go back to this exercise often, when I find myself creating secondary or tertiary characters that aren’t differentiated from the background. A little something to make them stand out, however briefly, in their scene.

If you find yourself stuck, give it a shot. What could it hurt, other than possibly your ankle?

(Image is property of owners and is used here without permission, because it makes me happy/indifferent/snarky/hot.)