Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finding Your Character's Voice--Shannon Style

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. :)

34 comments:

  1. Great suggestions Shannon. I really struggle with voice. I just got a critique from an editor I won who said my character has a good voice but it needs to be outstanding, so I have some work to do.

    I've been trying to pay attention to the character's voices in books I read to see if I can pick up how other authors do it. I think I'm getting it a bit better. I listen to a lot of books on tape while I walk or work around the house and you can hear the different voices there better.

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  2. I just love your methods. It makes me all kinds of happy that others do things when creating characters that earn them looks from their family like I do. I swear somtimes my husband thinks I have lost my mind!

    I usually interview my main characters, but I have never done it aloud...may have to give that a try!

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  3. Great suggestions Shannon.

    Interview your characters? I mean privately interview your characters? What a terrific idea.

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  4. I've never interviewed a character before... sounds very interesting, though! I'm going to have to give that a try!!

    I like to keep a journal for my character, and when I'm stuck, because her/his voice is hard to hear, I pull out the journal and make 'em write.

    My biggest problem while writing is describing stuff... my characters all describe things differently, as they see the world differently, so I spend a lot of time staring into space and describing things (like a towel, or a tea kettle, or the couch - usually what I see in front of me) from all my characters POVs.

    This usually freaks my kids out, as I do it all in my head, and stare very intensely, but it helps me hear my characters better. :)

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  5. Fantastic suggestions...I have playlists. For characters? No...for scenes! Today I will make character playlists, too. And---do some voice exercises. Thanks!

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  6. It's so interesting to know about the detailed in depth things that you do, and even though I'm still on my first novel I completely agree that this is one of the most important aspects of any book. I've had (actually I'm still having it) the pleasure of re-writing my novel from 3rd limited into 1st person POV and it is AMAZING how much difference it makes.

    I mean with the MC as the narrator his voice is able to come across so much more dynamically, but I've also found that I have to scale back, just a bit, on the other characters because although their dialogue is their own, everything else is filtered through the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the MC. It really makes for an interesting (even if a bit tedious to work through) interaction between myself as a writer and my characters.

    Great post as usual Shannon, thanks again!

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  7. Some great options are already listed. The newest method for me in character voice has been posting in a blog and taking part in chats as the character. I'm not much into role playing usually but after taking part in one chat where I learned so much about what my new demon character thought I've found the method helpful. Now I'm a member of a group blog where we post from our character's point of view and have our characters interact with each other. Sometimes questions I wouldn't think of can be asked for other people and their characters, which is also helpful.

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  8. I'm definitely going to try the voice exercises and interviewing my characters (even if it makes me look ridiculous...). Nailing the voice is always something I have trouble with, so this will help so much! Thanks, Shannon!

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  9. Fantastic suggestions, Shannon! I've never done the out-loud interview, but it really sounds like it would work. I often stumble when finding my characters voices (I'm much stronger at plot), so I think this will be really helpful!

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  10. I love the playlist and the interview idea. Awesome, now it's just a matter of sitting down in the chair and doing it.

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  11. I make a character playlist, too! One of my MC's likes Linkin Park and Muse while my newest MC listens to a lot of Marilyn Manson. My first ever MC liked Enya. I'm glad none of them have turned out to be Bieber fans. I don't think I could handle that.

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  12. I do checklists for my mc, but not an actual interview! Great idea!

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  13. Oh I've never done a playlist just for music that my character likes, but that's a great idea! I actually just started finding mundane details about my character that really describes them. For example I did a whole blog post about "What's in your character's bag" and thought about what my MC would carry in her bag. It was actually really helpful to get her personality down.

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  14. Great ideas, Shannon! I especially like the playlist idea..I'm going to have to give that a try.

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  15. Great suggestions, especially the playlist! I'm often told that character voice is the strongest part of my writing, but I'm not actually sure HOW I go about doing that. But it's probably because I spend at least six months with a character rolling around my head before I finally write them. When they start invading my dreams, I know it's time to unleash them :)

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  16. This post is golden! I especially love the playlist and voice exercises. I'm printing this one for my file - love it! Soooooo helpful. :-)

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  17. So this may be one of the most helpful posts on voice that I've read. Thank you! I'm making my playlist very, very soon. (I often figure out what sort of music the story has, but what each character listens to? I haven't thought of that.) I already know my main character is a fan of Pink Floyd and Yes (and all those good rock bands). :)

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  18. I love interviewing my characters. My biggest problem though with voice is when I get to a scene the character doesn't like and they refuse to cooperate. Alas. Why can't they understand that it is their job to be miserable and stop blaming me for everything that happens to them?

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  19. Awesome tricks! I never thought of giving them all their own play lists! Great ideas Shannon!

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  20. I've been meaning to do character interviews and plan on doing that starting with the next new story that I write. I figure it'll be multi-purpose: it'll help me learn more about the characters plus once the book comes out (I'm ever the optimist!) I can share the character interviews on my blog to build up hype for the book.

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  21. Great suggestions Shannon. I think I should try some of these to get closer to my characters. Thanks for sharing these. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

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  22. Usually voice comes to me fairly easily, although I do struggle with a few. I've never tried any of these techniques for developing character voice--they sound helpful, though!

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  23. Great methods again Shannon, thanks for sharing.

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  24. Great suggestions. I especially love the music one. I tend to use this one a lot.

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  25. The main characters in my books all had theme songs - a piece that best exemplified their deepest emotions.

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  26. These are such great suggestions. I especially like the music playlist idea and I'm definitely going to create playlists for my characters.

    A writer friend of mine once shared the idea of creating inspiration boards for your characters. You can cut images and words out of magazines or online and create a collage of stuff that your characters like. Then you can look back at the collage when you want to quickly remember things about your character.

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  27. This is awesome. I use a lot of these tricks and they work great. The one problem I have is when I concentrate on other parts as I write, I sometimes lose the voice or, since I'm writing from two POVs, they both start to sound the same. Oy. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise.
    Have a great day!

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  28. This is awesome. I use a lot of these tricks and they work great. The one problem I have is when I concentrate on other parts as I write, I sometimes lose the voice or, since I'm writing from two POVs, they both start to sound the same. Oy. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise.
    Have a great day!

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  29. Gah, this is such a tough one. I find I only really get the characters' voices down pat by actually writing, then rewriting, then rewriting... It's not the easiest method but it's the only thing that works for me so far.

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  30. These are great ideas! I've had to delete dialogue before after realizing my mc would never say what I had written. I am working on character studies to get to know them better.lol

    I sound insane.

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  31. Good point, in that the story's voice is diff from each character's voice. I haven't ever interviewed my characters or written an exercise in their POV, but when I write a scene with a character I haven't been with for quite a few pages, I re-read other scenes before that, to make sure I'm getting the same "flavor."

    I also keep track (in a document) of expressions, mannerisms, and pet phrases the characters use. Such as: saying "dunno" and "hafta," more complex/formal vocab, tapping a foot, biting a lip, saying "dude," etc. That way I can stay consistent, and not have ALL my characters spouting off "dude" and "hiya" and "gonna."

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  32. Excellent list, Shannon! I WRITE. That's pretty much all I do. I mix up the eye colors and hair colors and stuff. I refuse to interview my characters. I don't keep any kind of bible on them whatsoever.

    I write.

    They come alive by the end. Usually. And if not, I rewrite. Again. And again. And again.

    Pantser, yo.

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  33. These are great suggestions. I never thought about the music one in that way, but I agree that music is a big part of who we are. Might have to give this a go on my next novel!

    Angela @ the Bookshelf Muse

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  34. character voice is my favorite part of writing. i don't know. maybe i'm weird.
    anyway, these were great tips. a few i'd never thought of before. i'm definitely a veteran of the music and interview tips you offered. those are such great ways to get the depth of your character. i'm going to have to try the others as well.

    as for my characters, 9 times out of 10, they make themselves VERY prominent in my brain. we're talking so prominent that sometimes i have a hard time listening to what's going on in the 'outside world' because the world inside my head is SO active. (my mom can always tell when i'm listening to a character rather than when i'm listening to her...) but the thing that sells me on a character is, their name. if i'm strugging with a characters name, i'm usually struggling with a character. i know the character is right, when their name matches EXACTLY the way i need it to. (i.e. in Aprilynne Pike's 'Wings' the main character is named 'Laurel' which actually means plant. that's the kind of match i'm talking about!) so, when i'm starting with a new character, or even thinking about revising one, i'll spend hours (literally) researching names and their meanings just to make sure i'm getting it right. after i've given them a name, if its the right one, their voice is LOUD and CLEAR. if the name isn't right, then i'll have a harder time hearing them and then its back to the drawing board for me!

    sorry for the longest comment ever. can you tell i'm passionate? ;)

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