Dealing with Voice

When you start that illusive search for an agent, and doing all your research, there’s one things a lot of agents agree on.  Voice will sell them on something that they might normally not have been interested in.  Voice can grab their attention right from the query – and a novel with voice that resonates with them will hold that attention.

A lot of people have written about voice, and I think it’s one of those topics that you can’t really talk about enough.  For every author that talks about voice, you’re going to see a slightly different perspective on how they interpret it.   It’s more than just the way the character speaks in your story, and it’s more than just the language that you use.  It’s a combination of the two of those things, but also the perspective of the character that’s telling the story, their authenticity, and the life in them.

If you can make someone forget, in the first five pages of your manuscript, that they’re reading about a fictional character?  That’s voice.  If you can make them relate to you emotionally in some manner, in the way you talk in your novel?  That’s voice too.  It’s something that reaches out from the pages of your work, and grabs the reader by the throat. 

I’ve heard voice is one of the most difficult things to master, though.  “You can teach the rest, but you can’t teach voice.”  Maybe it’s not a skill you can learn, but I do think that anyone can uncover it.  Think about it like you’re an archaeologist.  You dig and dig, and you find yourself a neat little artifact.  But you don’t want to put too much pressure on it, and possibly break it.  So you slowly brush away at it, chipping away at all the stuff that’s blocking your view of the nifty little artifact, without damaging the item underneath.  I think voice is kindof like that.

When I get stuck while I’m writing, it’s usually because I realize there’s a problem with one of the characters.  I’m not ‘getting it’ where they’re concerned.  One of the ways I try to work around that is free writing.  I’ll just open a new window and start writing for ten or fifteen minutes.  Sometimes, it turns into a two way conversation between the character and I.  Other times, it’ll be a journal entry, or just free association.  There are times when I knowingly try to journal for the characters, and others where I just start writing.  It’s all about how you’re feeling at that particular moment.  And some ways are going to work better for you than others.

If I really get stuck, I play around with scenes that I’ve already written, and try writing them from the ‘stuck’ character’s perspective.  It lets me into their head a little more, and gets me in tune with the character.

And I think a lot of voice is like that.  It’s about tuning in.  Sometimes, you’ve just got the frequency off a little bit – if you jiggle the knob, you’re going to get that clear crystal picture.

Other things you can do is try filling out internet memes for your characters.  Figure out what kinds of music they like, what they do in their spare time.  What character in the Breakfast Club would they resonate most with?  There’s a hundred little exercises that you can use to get in touch with your characters.  And when you do that, and you’ve ‘got’ the character, let them tell the story in their own way.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in first or third person.  Just let them give their perspective.  Even if you’re writing from outside of the character’s head, their actions and demeanor colors the world around them, and touches the reader.

Once upon a time, during a WIP I abandoned a long time ago, I created my own version of a ‘character interview sheet.’  It had any vital statistics I needed to know at the top, and then I broke the main facets I saw coming out in the story into different categories.  Skills – what are they good at?  Where do their talents lie?  Personality – One word descriptors, never more than 10, that touched on the basis of their psyche.  Flaws – what holds them back?  How do those things break them down?  And Quirks – anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

In my own experience, one of the lines I had in Witch Eyes and then totally forgot was this tiny little paragraph – maybe two sentences long – about Braden in the shower.  Just the idea of how hard it has to be to take a shower with sunglasses on.  I didn’t even think twice about it, honestly – until someone pointed it out to me when they were reading it over.  How that honest little tidbit into Braden’s life grabbed them and really made them think about what Braden’s life must be like.

That’s what you’re trying to do, when you’re trying to capture your voice.  As the author, your perspectives are going to shape the worlds you create.  I think that’s what instructors mean when they tell you to write what you know.  Write it from your perspective, but don’t get bogged down by that.  Write what you know, but let the characters tell their story.  Let those little tidbits of their lives help bring them out and bring them alive.

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3 thoughts on “Dealing with Voice

  1. Hi! You don’t know me from Adam.

    I found your blog via Colleen Lindsay’s, and think it’s brilliant. Can’t wait to see Witch Eyes, it sounds vaguely similar to an idea I played with off and on a few years back, but I’m sure you pulled it off much better than I could have. BTW, how much research into African magic/mythology have you done? There’s a hell of a lot of story potential there.

    Anyway, this post? brilliant. I struggle with voice sometimes, and maybe some of the methods you outlined will help me too.
    Do you mind if I friend you?

    • Re: Hi! You don’t know me from Adam.

      I LOVE mythology, especially anything that doesn’t come up as the ‘typical’ mythology usage: Russian, Oceanic, etc. I pretty much find a little tidbit about a culture or a people that fascinates me, and then I go nuts trying to learn as much about them as I can.

      I’m glad the post helped you. It’s something I’ve seen a few authors talk about, but I think it’s a subject that you can’t read enough about. Every little bit helps and all that.

      And feel free to friend me! I love meeting no people.

      • Re: Hi! You don’t know me from Adam.

        Have you heard of a tokoloshe? It’s a little tiny man with a huge…well, in PG-rated versions, it’s a tail ;-), who causes mischief. There are millions of fascinating myths and legends in Africa, and they’re a very rarely written-about group.

        Are Russian myths interesting? I don’t know much about their pre-Christian culture.

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