This week: WANTED: CHARACTER VOICEEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
~ Neil Gaiman, horror and fantasy author
“Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in.”
~ Louise Brown, author
“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”
~ Meg Rosoff, multi award-winning novelist
In my May newsletter "WANTED: AUTHOR VOICE" , I explained this about agents:
On their websites, agents say they want:
“A distinct voice is imperative.” ~ Linda Epstein (Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency)
“…fiction with fresh, unique voices...” ~ Allison Devereaux (Wolf Literary Agency)
“…voice-driven narratives…” ~ Chelsea Lindman (Greenberger Associates)
“…unique, literary voices…” ~ Rachael Dillon Fried (Greenberger Assoc.)
“…fresh voices…” ~ Shannon Hassan (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency)
“…a strong voice…” ~ Claire Anderson Wheeler (Regal Literary)
“…a captivating and distinct voice…” ~ Fiona Kenshole (Transatlantic Agency)
“…a resonant, lively voice…” ~ Roz Foster (Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
“…the strength of the voice…” ~ Rachel Hecht (Foundry Literary)
“…character driven stories with strong voice.” ~ Samantha Dighton (D4EO Agency)
“…strong voices…” ~ Laura Biagi (Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency)
“…strong voices…” ~ Pooja Menon (Kimberly Cameron & Assoc)
“…strong voices…” ~ Adrienne Rosado (Nancy Yost Literary Agency)
What is this magical thing called “voice” that all agents say they want?
Voice refers to two things in writing: Author’s Voice and Character Voice.
So which does an agent want? Both.
I explained Author Voice last month. Now I’ll explain Character Voice.
WANTED: CHARACTER VOICE
What is Character Voice?
Character voice is the distinctive speech and thought patterns of a character. Different characters express themselves in different ways, which can be seen in such things as their vocabulary, sentence length, formal or casual grammar, slang, etc. These speech characteristics will "attach" to a character, helping that character stand out in the reader's mind.
When writing in first-person POV or third-person close POV, everything is written from a character’s POV and will show details specific to that character. When writing third-person omniscient POV, the character voice only shows in the dialog.
Here are examples of a scene with and without character voice. Which resembles your writing?
No Character Voice:
The reek from the cave grew stronger as Greg neared the entrance, a telltale sign this was the creature’s lair. He quashed the desire to turn back and strode inside. After the first twenty feet, the sunlight faded and velvety blackness consumed the ground and walls. The stench worsened with every step forward, and he stifled the urge to cough. Any sound might alert the creature. He drew his gun and clicked off the safety. Fifty feet farther in, the path terminated in a blank wall. He’d been wrong. The creature wasn’t here after all. Abruptly, a low rumble began behind him and escalated into a menacing growl. He spun, gun ready, and stared into the darkness.
Same scene with Character Voice:
As Greg neared the cave entrance, the reek hit him—worse than an outhouse in a July heat wave. This was definitely the creature’s lair, and he was about to go mucking around in it. The sunlight faded as he crept inside the cave. The stench made his eyes water. No Good Housekeeping award for you, Scumface. A barstool and cold brew waited for Greg at Flannigan’s. They sounded real good right about now. He drew his gun, and his finger flicked off the safety with the ease of long habit. A moment later, the cave terminated in a blank wall. Dead end? How could he have been wrong about the creature being there? That was when the growl started behind him, vibrating the walls like a chainsaw. Well, it looked like he was gonna be late to Flannigan’s.
How to Write Character Voice
Just as people are very different in real life, your characters should be different, each with their own idiosyncrasies in thought and speech pattern.
One character may not curse at all and another may curse like a sailor and still another may use substitute words like “frigging” and “darn.”
A professor will use words a bartender wouldn’t. A truck driver won’t sound like a bank president, and neither of them will sound like a teenager. All of them will sound different from a Texas cowboy.
To decide what your character should sound like, you need to examine certain facts in their lives.
Age, Time Period, and Location
Age ~ An old grandfather doesn't sound/think like a middle-aged housewife or a child. Hint for research: You can find forums on the net with posts from the age bracket you’re looking for, and you can get a sense of how they speak/write.
Time Period ~ If your story is set in Medieval times, or Victorian, or the roaring twenties, there are different words used in each one and you'll need to research them. (If you're writing Victorian era characters, here's a great site for examples of character voice, The Victorian Dictionary: http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm )
Location ~ Speaking styles differ from one side of the US to the other and one side of the world to the other. It's important to do some research about expressions and slang used in the area where your character grew up.
Syntax and Idiom
Culture ~ "When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not, hmmm?" (Yoda, “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”) Yoda has a distinct voice because he comes from a different culture. If your character comes from another country (or planet) he might use formal speech, no contractions, and make mistakes with grammar.
Word choice ~ the character’s vocabulary will be based on his age, education level, and the kind of place he grew up in (like Boston high society or the docks of NYC).
Sentence length and complexity ~ this can come from education level, or if the character is an introvert or extrovert, or what their self-confidence level is. A self-assured character may use longer sentences or a more forceful tone. A shy person may use short sentences, say as little as possible, or use fillers like “um” a lot, but inside they might be thinking in long rambling sentences about all the things they’re too afraid to say out loud.
Sayings (colloquialisms) ~ Make sure your character's sayings reflect his location and culture, like "I'm fixin' to go into town." (Texas) "If you want praise, die. If you want blame, marry." (Irish) "Don't try to pet that dog, boy, or you'll draw back a nub." (Louisiana Creole)
Education ~ The type of vocabulary a character uses can come from his education level and type. Someone with a college education may use more complex words and more formal grammar than someone who's in high school.
Job ~ The character's job may influence his choice of words, such as a lawyer saying, "The facts are clear. He slandered my sister's good name." Or a mechanic saying, "Whatja call my sister? I'm gonna tie your lying tongue to the back of my truck and drag you into the next county.”
Hobbies ~ A person who loves to ride horses may say, "He's angrier than a horse with a burr under his saddle." Someone who spends time on boats may use sea terms, like "You're living your life like a ship without a rudder."
Dialect ~ This is a tricky one. Writing a dialect is changing the spellings of the words to create an accent. It can be hard for a reader to understand a whole story written like, "Ya betta 'splain it to me afore I start hittin' ya." But in the famous bestseller, The Help, Kathryn Stockett used dialect for the servants, like "Baby Girl hug on my legs all afternoon to where I bout fall over a few times. I don't mind. Miss Leefolt ain't said nothing to me or Mae Mobley since this morning." Be careful with dialect -- a little goes a long way.
Uniqueness (differences between characters)
If your characters are very similar (same location, age, and culture), they would naturally sound very similar. Then, to make each one unique, you can develop catchphrases or words that are specific to each character. This means if you have one character who says “well” or “aw, c’mon” all the time, DO NOT have any other character use the same expressions.
Examples of catchphrases/words:
Bro, Dude, No way Jose, Say whaaa?
Well, Oh, Yeah, Okay, Alright, Jeez, Sheesh, Yikes.
Greetings and goodbyes:
Hey, Ciao, S’up, See ya, Keep it real, Toodles.
READERS! If you have questions about horror or the craft of writing and want me to write a newsletter about it, please write me directly at LJPC - the tortoise If I choose your topic for a newsletter, you’ll be mentioned in it and receive a MERIT BADGE!
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some stories with distinctive Character Voice for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "WANTED: AUTHOR VOICE" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: Great newsletter (as always). Voice is really the hardest thing to nail as a writer, and you have to find a new one with every new book or story.
Yes, voice is the hardest thing to get—both to understand and to acquire. It takes years. Thanks so much for replying to the newsletter!
9 years whew! writes: This NL told me alot about other writer's voice. I have no idea what mine is. It's not something I labor over. I write and what comes out is my voice. Maybe I don't have one. I'm moving this into may saved file. Someday I'll get this.
The more you write and revise, take advice or decide it’s not for you, the more your own voice becomes stronger. Thanks so much for taking the time to write to the newsletter, and CONGRATS on your publishing deal!
Taniuska writes: A perfect description of the author voice, and you're spot on -- everyone's develops over time with lots and lots of writing:)
You’re right, there’s no substitute for just getting in there and writing your heart out. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
billwilcox writes: Do I have a voice when I write?
I write long sentences. I write short sentences. I write about the movie I see behind my eyes that plays out faster than I can put it down. Luckily, I type like an old man, one word at a time, with a maximum of three fingers. If that gives me a voice I suppose it's better than writing in mime.
However you get that “movie” from your head onto the paper (or screen) is the right way, and it becomes your own distinct voice.
Specter writes: LJPC,
The magic of an author's voice touches off the dispute between love and hate, or right and wrong, resounding from the skull to the bowels. Voice? as hollow as a cave and as full as an ampitheater.
Question: Do you think style resonates with voice? For me, word choice is vital for the manner and means of voice, either for author or character.
I think Stephen King is stuck in his little attic of success in proclaiming, 'don't use the thesaurus.' Stop clapping your wings from your roost, Stephen. Thank you, I'll keep on peeping in mine as often as necessary. And it ain't the wrong word! It's all in the way you use the thesaurus, right on the button.
I agree, Slick. Personal choices, like whether or not to use a thesaurus, are what makes an author's voice his own and no one else's. (I use a thesaurus all the time.) We each have to follow our own path. Thanks for your reply!
BIG BAD WOLF submits "Vampires and Werewolves" and writes: What you've got to do is create your own voice. Sometimes you've got some crazy things to do.
You’re absolutely right—an author has to create his own voice.
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