Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say Potato, Your Character Says Potahto...

Last week we talked about your core voice—that part of your voice that is uniquely you and flavors everything you do. Whether you are a Red Rose potato, a Russet, a Yukon Gold, or a yam.

Today I want to talk about the more conscious aspects of voice: story voice and how one's voice can shift from book to book, and then creating characters’ voices, which you can have many of in any given story. Essentially, what you're going to make out of that potato.

Some authors' voices remain fairly constant throughout everything they write. Often that consistent voice is a large part of their appeal. Alice Hoffman, Jenny Crusie, and Meg Cabot are some that immediately come to mind.

Then other authors create unique, individual voices for each of their stories so that you might not realize they’d been written by the same person. Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Suzanne Collins, K. A. Applegate, Garth Nix.

If you're the former, then the story voice and author voice remain fairly constant and you don't have to wrestle with the idea of different voices for different stories. However, as I mentioned last week, voice confounded me for a long time because of this need to tell wildly different stories. Until I stumbled upon the idea that story voice is which aspect of your author voice you’re focusing on.

The thing is, we all have many aspects to our personality: funny sides, serious sides, dark sides, places where our deepest fears lay. To me, it makes perfect sense that our body of work will cover more than one side of ourselves, thus different flavors of stories.

However, while we might vary in whether we want to focus on humor or seriousness or hope or despair, WHAT makes us laugh or cry or hope or despair is part of the essence of who we are and that will very likely remain constant throughout the body of our work.

Whether it is center stage or backdrop is the variable.

If you are writing a scary story, you will be drawing on what frightens you, the terrifying moments you’ve experienced, your nightmares.

If you are writing a humorous or light-hearted story, you will probably draw on what parts of life you find absurd or ironic. A romance would focus on how you define love.

My teen assassins in medieval France book that comes out next spring uses a wildly different voice than either the Theodosia books or the Beastologist books. Not just older, but a wildly, completely different voice. And yet I still feel that it is very much my voice. But it is my seventeen-year-old voice versus my eleven-year-old voice. My coming-of-age voice rather than my still-firmly-rooted-in-childhood voice.

Another other big component of the story voice is the set of emotional truths and thematic issues you are exploring. They will greatly dictate the tone and feel of your book.

It is also my voice as seen through a medieval lens and worldview rather than an Edwardian one—two time periods with distinctly different flavors and sensibilities. The medieval world was obsessed with finding a path to grace and assuring a place in heaven, while Edwardians were just stepping out of a dark, somber, restrictive Victorian society and embracing a lighter side. Not to mention the beginning advent of modern technologies. If I’m doing my job in developing my characters, the flavor of those different times comes through.

Which segues rather nicely into finding your character’s voice

This is probably the most conscious aspect of voice, adjusting your voice to convey a specific, fictional character. It’s the part where you climb into the character’s skin.

One thing I need to understand in order to make my characters breathe on the page is what piece of me is in that character. What of my own core emotional truths does this character have? This is usually the key for me to an authentic character voice.

The truth is, pieces of ourselves show up in all our work. I have been surprised many times by unplanned pieces of me that show up on the page, usually spotted long after the book went to print and I acquired some distance from the story. Since this happens even when we don’t intend it to, we might as well consciously choose which parts we include and let them do some of the heavy lifting for us.

But how do we consciously develop our characters’ voice?

Well, if voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language, then to evoke a real-seeming, authentic character we need to understand their emotional truths, personal wisdom, and use of language. And while some of ourselves will be in them, they will in large part be wildly different from us, not unlike how kids have some of their parents in them, but are also their own unique selves.

This is where backstory comes in. Not because it belongs in the story—it doesn’t! Only the very littlest bit you can get away with. But the author needs all that backstory in order to understand what emotional truths and personal wisdom our character has acquired throughout their lives.

We need to know his formative experiences, emotional scars and wounds, hopes and fears, what sort of environment he’s grown up in, all those things go into creating our character. In order to get him to live on the page, he has to have a fully developed life of his own in order for us to be able to nail his worldview and, therefore, his voice.

I’m not suggesting we have to account for every moment of his life before he shows up on page one, but definitely the big emotional events that have shaped him.

Personally, I don’t find those character worksheets that ask what color his hair and eyes are, and what pets and hobbies and habits he has, all that helpful. What I need to understand is WHY my character has a ferret for a pet and WHY he has a constant tic under his left eye and WHY collecting boogers is his favorite—only?—hobby.

I often joke about not knowing what color my character’s eyes are because I’m too busy looking through them, not at them.

A key to getting this strong character voice is using deep point of view, going deep into the character’s head so that it is HIS perspective that colors the story.

But how do we get deep inside our character’s head?

For me it’s usually character journaling—creating a “journal” written by my character in which he confesses and contemplates his deepest thoughts. Almost like a therapy session. I'll often do a "therapy session" with the character on how he feels about the plot point that is about to occur in the story--that's where I find his emotional juice.

Whenever a story feels flat to me or has flat spots, I ask what is the core emotion the hero is experiencing in this scene? And why? Then, more importantly, have I managed to get it on the page?

If not, I dive back into the character’s psyche and try again.

This post is already beyond ridiculously long, so I’ve posted a sample worksheet/questionnaire behind the cut.

Okay, just to clarify, I don't answer each of these questions for each of my characters, but this is a list of things I look at when I'm trying to develop their backstory so that I can capture their personality on the page.

Gender - not that you don't already know what gender your character is, but be sure you really consider how gender affects worldview. Boys walking into a situation have very different reactions and notice different things than girls do. Frex, in middle school, a boy walking into the cafeteria on the first day of school might be wondering who is going to trash can him or who he could beat up if he had to. A girl, however, might be looking for who seems the friendliest or which social cliques to approach/avoid.

Family’s social status/income level - because poverty greatly affects worldview

Any ethnic background or influences

Family dynamics? Parents married, divorced, single? Siblings? Birth order?

What sort of student is the character? How popular are they at school?

Who is his best friend? Who is their worst enemy?

Do they have any hobbies? If so, how did they come to those hobbies? Why are they important? What do they illustrate about his character?

Are they athletic? Good at sports? If so, which ones. If not, how does that affect their life?

What is the character’s most treasured possession?

Do they have any superstitions?

What is their general attitude toward life? Optimist? Pessimist? What went into forming that attitude?

What are they afraid of?

What are his hopes and dreams? Both immediate and long term.

What does he long for?

Is there anything he feels guilty about?

What is he ashamed of? Proud of?

What is his relationship with technology? Do they have four TVs? No computer? A cell phone at age 10? An email account? (in historical or fantasy novels, this question is a whopper as it encompasses the other world you're building into your story.)

What are his character strengths?

What are his character flaws? What gets him in trouble the most often? What is he most embarrassed about?

Does he have any physical weaknesses? Uncoordinated, asthma, small for his age, etc.


Kenda said...

Very thorough--and helpful--discussion on voice, and the distinction between a writer's core voice and the character's voice. Thanks :-) And as for your thoughts on character information sheets, I especially like: "I often joke about not knowing what color my character's eyes are because I'm too busy looking through them, not at them." Classic!

Adele Richards said...


(thank you)

storyqueen said...

I am going to try the journal today. I am confused by why my character reacted in a certain way and I feel like she is keeping some pretty important secrets from me...ME! The author! she better spill pretty soon or the book is gonna be lame.

Thanks for this post.


1000th.monkey said...

Awesome, awesome post. You put a *feeling*, a vague sense of how things worked, into clear, easily understandable words.

R.L. LaFevers said...

So glad it was helpful, Kenda!

Adele, you are so welcome!

Shelley, I swear by the journaling method. The cool thing is, oftentimes I end up being able to use a lot of what I put in the journal in the actual book, but my subconscious needs the non-pressure of thinking it's just a journal entry. :-)

1000th monkey, so glad I was able to articulate things in an understandable way. Trust me, that is not always the case! :-)

CT said...

Thank you so much! This is brilliant, and so what I needed. Am attempting to craft a first novel for early YA (Junior high age) and have been feeling less than knowledgeable on character development. Your post helps tremendously!! Looking forward to your fall novel!

Becky Levine said...

Thanks, Robin. This is what I needed to remind me about figuring out my antagonist, actually--I do know that part of her is me, but somehow I'm not letting that part loose yet. Maybe because it IDs me as part bad guy?! :) I've been thinking I need to write a few not-to-use scenes in her point of view, and this is pushing me toward that even more.

Ramona said...

Love the character journal concept. The WHY focus is the key, isn't it?

Excellent post, very helpful and thought-provoking.

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Excellent post, Robin. I find the same sort of thing happens for me (as your journal) when I write letters to my characters and have them write back to me. Their voices start to emerge in the process and often surprising me.

M Pax said...

I hadn't thought of this, although I've written different stories with different sides of my voice. Now I have something to try to shake things up ... consciously. Thanks. :)

Robin L said...

Thanks, CT! I love it when the timing works out like that.

Becky, I think that is one of the hard parts about writing--that sense that we are going to show what aspects of ourselves are antagonist-worthy. And I think scenes that are written just to explore our characters are such a great tool!

Ramona, WHY is one of my favorite questions, right after WHAT IF?

Oo Susan! Letters to and from the characters are a terrific idea! I'll keep that in my back pocket for when journaling doesn't produce the desired results.

M Pax, good luck with shaking things up! Important to do in our creative pursuits!

cherie said...

Excellent post! And so thorough and informative. Lots of good points to think about here. :)

Kimberly Lynn said...

You are wonderful, Robin. Thank you!