Sunday, February 07, 2010

Hearing Voices

When you write a character, you try to get inside their head (yeah, I know I should write his/her, but their is easier). You want to hear their voice as they describe things, as they talk about their life, their feelings, their observations. And of course you want to hear their voice (not yours) when they speak. The voice that will be most prominent in your book is that of your protagonist, usually.

I think most of us know to have the character speak like him or her, rather than us. The words he uses, the slang, the grammar, the inflections, sound like the character. But we sometimes forget that when we’re in his head, hearing his thoughts or seeing what he’s seeing, we also need to be in his voice. This voice of the character, especially if it’s a series character, will become the voice of the book. Not yours. His. Or hers.

Here’s a bit from a character of my own. See if you can hear her voice. In this passage, she never says anything aloud, but I think you can still hear her.
I was supposed to have been a boy. Surprised everyone by arriving with a piece of my package missing. Sometimes God plays tricks on people.

Long ago I decided God was a woman. Only a woman would have such a weird sense of humor. Like giving Miss Aggie, the lady who sold beauty makeup door-to-door, a squashed flat nose and eyebrows that streaked across her forehead in thin slashes. Or the way God put my woods together – ordered, clean, beautiful. Only a woman-God would do that. A man would’ve planted a tire-growing tree or a burping bush.

Then last year, God took baby Celia, even though Mama carried her inside her for so long.

I’d been to funerals before. Grandpa Watson rested in a big, dark brown coffin, snuggled in snow-white satin, his head on a pillow Mama embroidered with a heavenly angel. Mary Belle, whose husband owned Belle of the Ball Dress Shop, had a fancy casket with lots of brass and hundreds of yellow roses.

I’d never seen such a small coffin. White, with baby’s breath and one red rose on top. I added a dandelion I’d picked at the side of the road, ‘cause it’s my favorite. I like to make a wish and blow on it so it scatters to the wind. Celia would have liked those too, if she’d had the chance.

Mama said Celia was so beautiful and precious God decided to keep her in Heaven.

Guess God doesn’t like dirty fingernails and callused feet. That’s okay. Now She can keep a better eye on Celia than She did on me. I’m wiry. I have the woods to hide in.
What about you? Do you give your characters voice even when they’re not speaking aloud?
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26 comments:

  1. "I know I should write his/her, but their is easier."

    Nah, stick with the singular "they." It sounds more natural, and it's been in common use for pretty much as long as English has existed. If it was good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, then ought to be good enough for us modern folks.

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  2. I so enjoy a piece of writing that has a strong character voice. It really makes the writing come alive. For me, character can make or break the book. I very much liked the voice in your piece. I'm always impressed by children's voices done well.

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  3. Anj, I like that: the singular "they." I think I'll adapt it.

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  4. I didn't write in first person, so the inner voice isn't like that. But moments of self thought are infused with bitterness and anger, something I don't share with the main character.

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  5. Being in the character's head makes those feelings of bitterness and anger more alive to the reader, though.

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  6. You can write in the voice of a character, even from third person. As for voice in mine, I wouldn't do it any other way.

    http://www.carrieclevenger.com/

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  7. A writer that I like - Marge Piercy - uses per in her book Woman on the Edge of Time. I like it but I can't say I've adopted it. It stands for person just in case it isn't clear...
    I work a fair bit trying to make sure my protagonist doesn't sound like me. I try to keep out of her mouth and thoughts the phrases that are identified with me - I have a certain affinity for anachronistic speech that would out me in a nano-second. To get into another's voice, I need to know my own quite well.

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  8. I imagine this is easier to do in first person. I've never written in first person - don't like to read books in first person either. Guess the inner voice comes through more in actions and behavior when it's third person.

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  9. Beautiful voice example. It's amazing how much we learn about a character just through their voice. I write 3rd person, but would love to try a 1st person, just to try getting inside the character from that angle.

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  10. Helen, I love this excerpt. Where is it from? Is the book published?
    Karen

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  11. Great story excerpt, Helen! I felt I knew the character, even from the short piece of the story, and could hear your voice clearly.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  12. I have to remind myself because I write fantasy with mulitple pov and keep everyone's quirks and fears straight.
    I love your character. Sounds like the little tomboy I was once upon a time.

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  13. I really enjoyed your excerpt, Helen. Hope you finish the book and get it published.

    I do try to establish voice for my characters, and like Susan said, it is important that we keep the characters' voices distinct. I really don't enjoy a book in which all the people talk alike. After a while I can't keep them straight and that gets frustrating.

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  14. Great character - she's one of those I'd like to get to know better. Honest, observant & tough. Can't wait for the book to be out!

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  15. wow- have a picture in my head already- just from those few paragraphs Would love to read more of that..

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  16. Helen very interesting character.I actually like first person to read and write. Third person I easily lose POV.

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  17. Loved your excerpt, Helen, particularly the "burping bush." You captured the child's voice while showing us how much they see.
    I believe writers can and should capture that same essence of character even in third person, so readers know whose voice it's in, who's thinking.

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  18. The book is not out. I finished it, but know it needs much reworking. This character is first person, but the rest of the characters are third. Now that I think about it, it's a bit odd that the character from the past is in first person.

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  19. When I started writing, I tried to write not only in the voice but also in the language of my characters, really in their characters. My editor felt this was limiting, as some of my characterrs didn't have the range of vocabulary to express themselves well enough. I had to write for them. Unless you are writing a playscript, there are certain limites to writing in characters' voices.

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  20. You do something quite difficult quite well, Helen--and I, for one enjoy "different" voices in a novel, the more distinct the better and this voice is distinct.

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  21. I'm writing a Hearing Voices series for over at the Blood-Red Pencil blog so bookmark http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com for other angles on this theme. Helen is one of our editors over there, too.

    Dani

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  22. Well done. I could "hear" her. And yes, when my main characters speak, I hear the sound of their voices. I agree this is important in effective writing and character development, being inside their heads and hearts.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  23. Some characters are easy to get inside of. Some you have to get to know and listen to before they'll let you in. (It seems to me.)

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  24. Great voice, Helen. Based on this passage, I'd guess she's about 10 or 11. You did a good job tackling death from a child's perspective.

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  25. I really like the excerpt, Helen. Beautiful writing and a character I'd like to know more about.

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  26. I seriously enjoy your writing style, Helen. Would love to read more.

    PS. I've left a little something on my blog for you :)

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