Whenever I write through the perspective of a particular character in a story, it’s never simply just using my good-ol’-Rami-Ungar-style of narration and pretending to see things through the eyes of said character. I wish it were that simple. Characters, despite being the product of an author’s imagination, tend to feel like independent entities who are telling me their stories (if any psychologists or philosophers can explain that to me, I’d love to hear your two cents). Still, transmitting the story from my head, where the story’s presented as a movie with narration mixed in, to the page requires me to figure out how that voice manifests on the page.

Sometimes that’s easy to figure out. Sometimes it’s not.

The past couple of stories I’ve worked on–Mother of the King, The Night Hitler Came to London, and this novelette I’m working on currently–have been challenging when it comes to figuring out the narrators’ voices. This probably has something to do with the fact that the POV characters in these stories have lives that are very different from mine. For the first two, the POV characters have both been British, which I am not. I’ve been relying on all the British novels, TV shows and movies I’ve consumed over the years, trying to make them seem British, rather than Americans throwing around British colloquialisms like “bloody hell” or “tosser.” And in the case of The Night Hitler Came to London, the two main characters are growing up during the London Blitz, so trying to tap into the mindset living during that particular moment of history isn’t the easiest.

Then again, my country has been at war in some way or another since 2001. So perhaps it’s a bit easier than I give it credit.

And this current story I’m working on…whoo boy! I’m back to working on a novelette I started between two previous drafts of Rose, and the main character is a young housewife from the American South during the 1960s. That’s already pretty alien to my own experience, so it’s a challenge to make her sound like a real person without resorting to a stereotypical Southern accent. I’ve made some progress on that in this latest attempt on the story and I think I’ve figured it out, but I’m sure there will be challenges in the future, I may have to work on her a bit more before I try to publish this story anywhere.

And I’m probably not the only author who struggles with this. Because of how different their lives are from ours, or just how differently their minds work, there will be characters whose heads we struggle to get into and whose voices we struggle to translate to the page. With that in mind, I have a few tips on how an author can figure this out:

  • Look at their background. While every individual is different and background doesn’t determine everything, it can have a huge influence on how a person–and a character–turns out. How they were raised, socioeconomic status, education, religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, who they hung out with, how they were treated by teachers, how they did in sports, what they saw on the Internet. All this makes us. If we can figure all out of this, it can help us get in our characters’ heads and figure out their voices.
  • How do you want them to come off? How do you want your audience to perceive your character? If funny, make sure their observations are full of jokes and witticisms. Narcissistic? Everything comes back to them and makes them look good. Do they feel persecuted? Everything and everyone they come into contact with should reinforce that belief, even if to us we see innocence in these interactions. If you know how your character should come off to readers, you’ll have an easier time writing them.
  • Have an inner dialogue. This is something I did for my character in my current WIP. I go into this in more detail in my article on Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, The Inner Dialogue: A Method For Figuring Out Your Stories, so I highly recommend you check it out. If you don’t have time to read it, this is just having a conversation with your inner writer. You can also do this with your character. After all, characters are independent entities after a sort, so you can learn a lot by “hearing” them “speak.”

Some characters are easier than others to understand and translate to the page. But when they are, you shouldn’t give up. There are plenty of ways to figure them out. And when you do, that’ll make all the hard work all the more gratifying.

Have you worked with characters whose voices were hard to find? What did you do figure out their voices?

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