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

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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).

I am always right (motivation)

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If I move into a beautiful New England home with my beautiful family and on our first night, the walls run red with blood and a disconnected voice cries “Get out!”, I go to a hotel and move the next day.

I do not search for an explanation (or at least not that night). I do not instinctively head for the dusty attic, the dank dark basement or that rather nasty looking shed under the menacing weeping willow in the darkest corner of the back yard.

So when I read about characters doing just that in a novel or screenplay or watch actors do it at the movies, I find myself thinking they deserve whatever comes next because they are idiots. What the hell motivated them to have that stupid response? Out of the gate, I disconnect from the character.

Now, despite the title of this blog post, I am not suggesting that only my instincts should be followed in screenplays, novels, etc.—these would be damned short stories if everyone did—but rather it is a call to writers to help me, as a reader or viewer, understand why the character behaved the way he or she did. Until I do, I cannot really bond with the character.

This isn’t easy, but it is necessary.

Whenever a character responds to something or takes an action, you have to ask yourself, why did he or she do that? And over the course of your story, are all of that character’s choices consistent with his or her personal journey from before your story’s opening to its conclusion?

And as if that isn’t difficult enough, you then have to ask yourself, have I written the story in such a way that the audience can see the logic of the choices, even if only in hindsight?

This last point is crucial, because as writers, we often know or understand things about our characters that never make it to the page. Thus, while everything may seem completely consistent and logical to us, it may still be confusing to our audience, who is not privy to the machinations within the head of the writer god.

At the same time, you never want to spell it out for the audience, because then story reading or watching becomes too passive an exercise and the audience doesn’t engage. You need to feed your audience just enough information that it can begin to make inferences about your characters’ behaviours and so become connected with your characters.

The good news is that this is unlikely to happen in your first draft or at best, will happen in drips and drabs.

As you develop your story past draft one, you will find moments of inconsistency or more likely, your trusted readers and advisers will find inconsistencies. Take those in and mull them over. Odds are, fixing those issues will not require a major refocus of your story…just a heavy-brush rewrite. And your story will improve.

So if the walls run red with blood, a disconnected voice cries “Get out!” and your protagonist doesn’t, I better understand why.

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