The last couple of weeks I've talked about some techniques I use for writing/revising dialogue and for creating characters. So it seemed only natural to spend this week's Shannon Style post talking about how I find my character's voices.
And I know that may seem like it's the same thing as dialogue, but it's not. Especially in first person--but even in third person--every word on the page is in a character's "voice" (which is different from the author's voice, something I will attempt to talk about another time, once I actually figure out how to say something useful ;) ). So it's essential to find the unique, authentic "voice" for the characters telling the story, because that--imho, at least--is what separates a "good" draft from a "great" draft. Basically, it's the brass ring to strive for.
Now, again, I have to confess...a lot of this is something I do kind of unconsciously. Meaning that my characters often come to me with a very clear, distinct voice, and I just sort of channel that into everything I write. I'm very very grateful for that, and I hope it never stops, because finding the voice can be HARD. But, I have picked up a few tricks along the way, either through trial and error or through film school, so I thought I'd pass them on to you.
Okay, first and foremost: to find your character's voice you have to write. There's no magic trick to avoid it. Butt in chair. Fingers on the keyboard. Write. Write. Write. Tons of it may be horrible. Shoot--all of it may be horrible. But the only way to figure out what a voice sounds like on paper is to try it out. Vomit out those words and somewhere in that mess I guarantee you will find the character's voice.
That being said, there are some other things that make a HUGE difference for me.
1) Make a character playlist. Even if you aren't like me and don't write to music, this is still a super helpful exercise. And I'm not referring to a "book playlist" or a "plot playlist" or anything else like what you see on writer's websites when their books are released. Those are awesome and wonderful and you can definitely make them. But this is different. The songs on this playlist probably won't "fit" your story at all. But they're not supposed to.
Here's what you do: imagine your character was really alive and handed you their iPod. What songs would they have on there? Not just genres of music--though that's a start. Specifically what songs? Make a playlist out of those, and listen to it either before or while you write.
I have one character who loves pop-country like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. (I never mind listening to her playlist.) I have another who likes the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. (Her playlist is TORTURE to listen to--and omg I DIE whenever one of those songs pops up on my iPod when I have people in the car). Another loves indie rock like The Spill Canvas and Anberlin. (He's my favorite.) Knowing that about them really gives me a feel for who they are as a person--cause let's face it, musical taste is a very personal thing, and it does affect the way you think and talk. Try it with your characters. Spend a couple hours making them a playlist. I think you'll be amazed at what you learn.
2. Interview your characters: Okay, this is another one of those tricks where the process can be a little embarrassing, so I highly recommend you do this one alone. But it is worth the humiliation--and this is one I am not too proud to admit that I do. A lot. (And yes, a few times my husband has caught me and found it rather hilarious. I just tell myself he'll appreciate my methods when I have a book in the stores someday :D)
Basically, you pretend you're a reporter (or a talk show host--shoot, pretend you're Oprah if you want) and ask the characters the kinds of questions an interviewer would ask them. Then you make the characters answer the questions--out loud. Like it's a real interview for all the world to see. Why? Because if you've ever watched a news report, you've probably noticed how the way the person relates what happened to them is distinctly their own way of telling it. You can find your character's "voice" by making them do the same.
Make them talk about the things you're putting them through. The things they think and feel. Say their answers out loud and try to put yourself in their shoes and really feel it. Even if you're like me and your acting skills leave MUCH to be desired, you'll be amazed at how you still get such a clear feel for the way they think and talk. Do they give lots of details? Do they try to keep emotion out of it? Do they gesture a lot with their face and body? All of that should and will be reflected in their "voice" when you let them tell their story on the page.
3. Voice Exercises: Yes--I know. They're kind of a lot of work and they often yield nothing useable for your book. But they can be PRICELESS. Why? Because sometimes when you sit down to write the actual draft you can get lost in the PLOT and the STORY and the pressure you put on yourself to NAIL THE SCENE that you forget about the voice, or at least temporarily lose sight of it.
So it can be a huge help to start your writing time with a short voice exercise, just to get into your character's head. No pressure to be good. No plot or story. Just thinking and writing like the character for 15-20 minutes before you dive into the draft. Makes a huge difference.
There's a million-and-a-half different ones you can do, but personally I like to do exercises where I delve into the character's past or memories. I make them tell me the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them. Or maybe a sad memory, if I'm about to work on a sad scene. Maybe they talk about what kinds of animals they do or don't like. Or what they imagine high school will be like when they get there. I'm sure there are books/websites out there with lists of them, but I personally just come up with my own. I pick something that interests me about the character--something I haven't put much thought into before--and I just free-write a couple of pages. Every so often I even end up with something I can use in the book. But that's not the goal. The goal is to get inside my character's head and learn to think like them, so I can channel that on the page.
I'm sure there are more to finding character voice than this--and like I said at the beginning, a lot of times the character's voice just sort of comes to me. But when I get stuck, or I have to change a character during the revision process or I stumble across a difficult scene where I'm not quite sure how the character would tell that particular part of the story, I fall back on these tricks. And they have helped me immensely. Hopefully if you decide to try them they'll work as well for you.
How about you guys: any tricks you use for finding the character's voices? Or do you have any questions on any of this? Feel free to load up my comments section. I love the dialogues these "Shannon Style" posts open up every week. :)