Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Voice

Everywhere I look lately, I see conversations about 'voice'.  Does my manuscript have voice?  How do I create a voice for my story?  What IS voice?

The consensus is:  you'll know it when you see it.  There is no road-map to writing with a strong voice. 


The truth is, most writers intuitively grasp voice and use it without understanding it.  Over time, authors formed 'you'll know it when you see it' as a scapegoat, because the recipe isn't straight-forward.  But there IS a recipe.

And here it is:

  • 2 parts background
  • 1 part emotion
  • 1/2 parts needs
  • 1/2 parts wants
  • 1 part quirks
  • 3 parts perspective
  • 1 part empathy

Start with 2 parts background and split it.  One part will be the main character's past--how they were raised.  The other part will be the present--how they got there.  Include age, locational dialect, education level, and poverty level.  Throw it in the melting pot. 

Next is the 1 part of emotion.  What is their social status?  How do they feel about the world they live in?  When they look at other people, what do they think?What do they love?  What do they hate?  What is the meaning of 'justice'?  What do they fear?  What vegetable will they leave on the plate?  Throw it in the melting pot.

1/2 part Needs--Separate it into two piles:  the satisfied and unsatisfied needs.  Food, shelter, money, purpose are the big ones.  Throw the satisfied needs in the melting pot.  Set aside the unsatisfied needs.

1/2 part Wants--combine the unsatisfied needs with the three of the seven sins.  Lust, Greed, Envy.  Add a dash of longing.  Combine result with an ambition--a goal or unfulfilled desire.  Throw result in the melting pot.

1 part quirks--Real people have habits and quirks, such as a person who runs away whenever they see a person they like.  From the melting pot you've assembled so far, pick out the main character's habits and quirks.  Set aside to use as toppings.

3 parts perspective--Use the main character's perspective, the author's perspective, and the reader's perspective as sifters.  Use the main character's perspective sifter to remove any inconsistencies with setting and character interaction.  Use the author's perspective to sift out plot inconsistencies.  Use the reader's perspective to sift out any immersion-breaking issues.

1 part empathy--This is where you say....

"But Eli...  I did almost everything in this recipe when I created my character!"

And then I say:

"Then you understand your character.  But did you become your character?"

While reading manuscripts, it becomes very easy to separate the people who started a story with a plot and those who started with a character.  Those who started with a plot don't have voice because the character was only a passenger in the beginning.  The character was formed as a byproduct of circumstance.  But humans--those of us who walk around and talk--are very complicated creatures who struggle, struggle, struggle. Even when circumstances force us in a certain direction, we retain our core personalities... personalities that are decided by our backgrounds, our wants, needs, emotions, quirks, and perspectives.

An actor becomes a character on stage, but there's a writer somewhere who created the character and their dialogue.  If you want to add voice to your novel, you must go to the same lengths.  The author is the first person to become a character.  Don't just step into their shoes.  See through their eyes.  Speak the words they would say and...

Most importantly....

THINK like the character would THINK.

Remove 'the author' from the equation.  The author doesn't tell a story.  The character does.  (Note:  In a novel, even a narrator is a character.)

For those of you who start with a plot, don't worry.  It's okay to start with a plot and develop your character through the course of the novel.  The answer to adding voice is simple--rewrite once your character takes form.  It's harsh, I know.  No one wants to rewrite one chapter, much less three or four.  But your character's attitude and personality should be infused from the first sentence.

If you're still having trouble, then here's one more tip to adding voice:
Say "I"  in place of the character's name.

Here's an example:

Author's voice:

Peter walked wearily to the store.

I wrote this as myself and the result is a report of his/my actions.  No voice.

Character's voice:
I walked to the store, even though my feet ached and my legs felt ready to snap like twigs.

Edited into third person:  Peter walked to the store, even though his feet ached and his legs felt ready to snap like twigs.

Once you become the character, the perspective changes.  You'll naturally vary your word choice, sentence structure, and phrasing because it's no longer you, the author, talking.  This is why people have trouble explaining 'voice'.  It's a natural byproduct of personality and perspective.

In Conclusion

  • To create voice, expand your character to a three-dimensional figure.
  • Become your character instead of superficially possessing them or using them.
  • Write AS your character instead of writing ABOUT your character.

This is what works for me.  Your results may vary.
For another good view on "Voice", check out BBC's post: HERE.

1 comment:

Lanette said...

Excellent breakdown on this difficult definition!