Thursday, 25 August 2011

On Voice - Creating Unique Voices for Your Fictional Characters

When I wrote the first draft of my first novel a few years ago, I submitted it immediately to Kensington Books. Talk about hutzpah! John Scognamiglio, the Editor-in Chief, was far kinder than I had any right to expect in his letter of rejection. He said I needed to find my voice. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I’ve learned a lot since then. I stopped trying to decipher what my voice should be and started looking for voice in the authors whose works I love to read. What makes Donna Leon’s writing so distinctive? Why do I read every Nora Roberts that comes out no matter how inane the story? Why is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett so compelling?

Voice, voice, and voice.

The best story one can imagine is nowhere without that magic ingredient of the storyteller’s voice.

Voice is the most intangible and elusive ingredient of memorable writing. I recognize it easily in my favourite authors, but if it’s missing in an author new to me, I don’t immediately know what’s wrong. I just know that there is a lack of conviction in the writing.

I think my own writing has improved considerably since that first experience in rejection. In the ensuing years I believe I found my voice. Comments from contest judges and even in rejection letters, of which I’ve had my share, have referred positively to my voice.

So what is this thing called voice, and how do we achieve it?

My favourite book on the art and craft of writing is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (1995). It has saved my life, or at least my story, more than once. Stein tells us to “examine each word for its necessity” and to write with “precision and clarity.

I sometimes think I should have those words fashioned into a flashing sign and mounted over my desk, where I cannot avoid them. It’s so much easier just to blather on.

The bottom line about voice, I believe, is that our written voices as authors must be as easily identifiable to our readers as our speaking voices are to our friends and family.

And as if that weren’t a tall enough order, the voices of our characters should also be easily distinguishable, one from another. It should be possible to tell who is speaking by the way they speak, by the words they use and by the way they express themselves.

Is there any doubt in your mind as you read the following excerpt from The Memory of Roses whether it is the hero or the heroine speaking? The scene is a beach on the Greek island of Corfu.

“Stop! We mustn’t do this,”
Andreas looked at her, dazed.
“You’re too young for me,” Brit blurted out before she could stop herself.  “Just how old are you?
“Twenty-six. And you are thirty-two. Daphne told me. A difference of six years. Would it matter to you if I were six years older than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Well then?”
“You’re just twisting things around. You know it’s not the same.”
“I believe that it is exactly the same, and I assure you that I’m not in the least too young for what I have in mind.”
Andreas brought his mouth down again to hers and Brit’s last conscious thought was, what the hell! Why not? Why shouldn’t I have this brief interlude?

In this small sample, there are five consecutive lines of dialog with no dialog tags. “He said, she said” are unnecessary and would have the negative effect of interrupting the flow of the scene. The voices are clearly identifiable as male and female, hero and heroine.

I ascribe particular voices and patterns of speech to my characters when I construct character sketches and this happens well before I write the first words of my stories. My characters’ voices always sound in my mind as I write their dialogue.

I frequently hear the voices of actors and actresses in my characters. One of my favorites is the voice of a well-known film star of mature years, who shall remain nameless, but who was often identified in his films by the number  '007' rather than a name. But I’m just as likely to use the speech mannerisms of my next door neighbour or the local French Canadian farmer from whom I buy eggs. I shamelessly listen to strangers speaking and jot down notes in my ever handy pocket notepad. When I travel, I steal speech patterns and mannerisms from shopkeepers, hotel clerks, waiters, and just about anyone else I can engage in conversation.

As for my own voice, it is always in my head as I write. I don’t think dialog or even setting. I hear and speak dialog, I see setting.

Do I have the problem of voice resolved? Of course not. But at least I know now what the term means. I think it’s something all writers strive continuously for – developing that unique and individual voice that we hope will make our readers keep coming back to us as authors.

The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell, Rebel Ink Press, will be available at and on October 3rd, 2011.

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Blair McDowell