Posts Tagged ‘character voices’

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I know it feels weird to interrupt the partying and celebration with discussion of writing. But after today’s news, and after a hell of a week, I feel so energized to write. With that in mind, I finished the outline of my next story today, and I’m looking forward to starting it. So, I shall take a moment of your time to talk about writing.

As I said, I just finished an outline for a new story. And, as you can guess from the title of this post, it’s going to have two protagonists. Or, to be more specific, it’s going to be told from the points-of-views of two protagonists. One is a US Army major who has had his fair share of combat experiences. The other is a thirteen-year-old runaway who just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t say more than that.

Now, plenty of stories are told from multiple points-of-view. All you have to do is look at the typical bookshelf full of fiction tomes and you’ll find at least three or four books where we see events from the perspectives of two or more characters. But then there are stories where you take for granted that the story is told that way. And then there are stories where you remember how perspectives differed from character to character. Where the multiple POVs is a main feature of the story.

It’s that sort of story I’m aiming to create.

The Bartimaeus books by Jonathan Stroud. Great example of this kind of distinctive-voice storytelling.

Thankfully, I’ve had plenty of teachers over the years with this sort of storytelling. From the (sadly underrated) dark fantasy series The Bartimaeus Trilogy to the literary satirical comedy that is The Falls by George Saunders (read that short story for two separate classes at OSU, and it’s still good), the strong voices of each narrator has a profound impact on the reader. By the time the story ends, you feel like you didn’t just read a story. You read a story and got to know these characters intimately.

That’s what I hope to do. I’m going to be switching between POVs nearly every chapter, and I have to make each protagonist’s voice as distinct as possible. It’s going to be a challenge. I’ve written several stories told from the POVs of multiple characters before. Every author has at least once. But often, it reads like variations of the author’s normal writing voice.

Take IT, for example. There are multiple characters in that story, and many of them get to tell things from their POV. Plus, King narrates things for a few chapters, especially in the early parts of the book when Georgie and the young gay couple are attacked. And it’s a great book with great and memorable characters. But you wouldn’t call every narrator/POV character distinctive from the rest, would you?

Well, that’s my challenge with this story.* With any luck, I can take what I’ve learned from the stories I’ve read and apply it to this next story. Thankfully, there’s only two protagonists, so that should help. (Actually, that might be an important ingredient, having only two leads. Keeps things simpler).

But all that starts tomorrow. For now though, I’m off to shower, pour some wine, watch a scary movie, and dance to “The Touch” by Stan Bush (great song from the 1980s to listen to right now). Until next time, my Followers of Fear, party hard and pleasant nightmares.

What are your tips for creating multiple, distinct narrators? What stories do you think of that do this well? Let’s discuss.

*That, and keeping this story from becoming the length of a novel, but one problem at a time.

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?