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How do you make your characters talk?
Let me start by saying I’m no expert—this is something I’m still learning and improving myself. But getting your characters to speak to you, to your readers, in their own unique voices is essential.
Confession: the number one reason I don’t continue with a WIP idea (even one I’ve fully plotted out with something like fifty flashcards) is because the voice isn’t right. This is also the number one reason I start with a WIP idea I hadn’t planned at all after plotting out a completely different WIP—in my search for the right voice I found one…but for a different story.
Confessions aside, here are some steps to uncover voice:
- FIRST, get to know your characters. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get to know your characters before you attempt to discover their voices. The only exception to this rule is when you stumble upon the voice before you know the character, which does happen, but in that case you don’t need this blog post. You need to read Getting to Know Your Characters.
- Pause. Now that you know your character, take a moment to reflect on their personalities. Run over your list of details (whether a physical one, or the one in your head) and close your eyes. Pretend, for a moment, that you are your character. What’s it like to be them? How does it feel? Is it exciting? Scary? Difficult?
- Let them rant. Choose something your character is passionate (or frustrated) about and let them run loose. Maybe your character lives in a time of war and is sick of the violence, or maybe it’s something as simple as your teenage protagonist pissed off at his lazy brother. Whatever it is, make sure they care and go for it.
- Now repeat…for a different character. I recommend you do this for at least two characters—even if you’re writing a first-person or limited-third-person novel. Why? One of the best ways to discover the quirks and eccentricities in your character’s voice is by comparing them to another character. What makes their voices different? How are they similar? What can you do to make them more unique?
- Finally, push the boundaries. Maybe your rant was slightly amusing. Write it again and go for ridiculous.
For the rest of us, however, you need to know details about your character first. Their fears, opinions, how they were raised, education, age—all of those little tidbits (and more) play a part in voice. Do you know your characters? Are you sure? Ok, then let’s move on.
Once you’ve sat in your character’s mind for a few minutes, open your eyes and get a piece of paper (or a Word document) ready.
Maybe your rant was angry. Go for enraged.
I challenge you to emphasize whatever emotion you pulled from your rant and multiply it. Don’t worry about going overboard, this is a discovery session. The goal is to discover the limits of your character—the quirks, the weaknesses, the phrases he likes and passions he hides. You want to find the core of your character and lather it over the page with a knife. Don’t hold anything back.
What are some of your favorite voices in literature? I’d have to go with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. How about you?