Voice: You Are Not Your Characters


Photo credit: Zabowski on Flickr
For much of my journey as a writer, I was aware of this thing called voice. I knew what it was, for the most part, and the theory behind how to develop it (that is, write and read a lot). I knew that an author's voice was different from a character's voice, but it wasn't until I started writing in first person that I came to realize that one can overpower the other.

In my case, my writer voice was way overpowering my character's voice (a problem, especially in first person) and this revelation forced me to stop and rethink how I view voice.

You see, your writer voice develops naturally over time—it's something that threads together with every word you write and every sentence you read. It evolves gradually, naturally into something that is you, into your mark on the page.

But the character voice — that's an entirely different battle, because your character's voice is not the same as your voice. Not even close.

I've been following John Green's "Only If You Finished The Fault in Our Stars" tumblr, and oftentimes people have asked him why he had Hazel or Augustus (the book's two main characters) say or think something. The most popular of these questions was why Hazel states at the beginning of the novel that V for Vendetta is a “boy movie,” and whether he believes V for Vendetta to be a "boy movie." I found part of his answer particularly interesting (and relevant, so bear with me):

"I am not a sixteen-year-old girl with stage IV cancer named Hazel Grace Lancaster, so I did not call V for Vendetta a boy movie. I was writing from her perspective, and it’s really important to note that it’s not necessarily my perspective. So I think HAZEL (at least beginning of the novel Hazel) would consider V for Vendetta a boy movie. I generally do not attach gender to films or other works of art, as it seems like a weird thing to do."

What he's hitting on here is golden advice for any writer: we are not our characters. I mean, we are in the sense that we create and develop them, but by no means are we them (because if we are, we have a new problem, namely, that you're writing a Mary Sue into your story, which is an entirely different post (and problem) on its own).

Your voice — that is, the voice of the writer — must be different from your characters' voices (unless you're writing an autobiography, in which case, carry on).

For me, that revelation meant having to rewrite my WIP while constantly asking myself if this is something my protagonist would think or say. I won't pretend it wasn't a lot of work, but I came out of it with an entirely new perspective on developing and writing characters.

How do you develop character voices? Have you ever found your writer voice was overpowering your character voice? How did you fix it?

22 comments:

Daniel Swensen said...

Couldn't agree more. There's a certain author I like whose work is undermined by all his characters sounding like the same person (namely, the author). I try really hard to give my characters distinctive voices and stick to them, so they don't all become what Patton Oswalt calls "inhuman quip machines." 

Ava Jae said...

Personally, I've found that with each subsequent draft, it becomes easier to differentiate between various character voices, probably because you get to know your characters a little bit more with each revision. It can be difficult to accomplish, especially at first, but it gets gradually easier. 

J. A. Bennett said...

Very good point. I'm currently writing a character who has had a very different life experience from me and I'm finding her priorities quite interesting. It's fun to dive into the head of another person :)

Ava Jae said...

I definitely agree--once you figure out your characters, it can be very interesting and enjoyable to write from their perspective. The more different they are from you (the writer), the more entertaining it is to write (at least, in my experience). :)

Courtney Privett said...

I model a lot of my dialogue patterns off real people.  Family members have similar speech patterns and word usage.  Personality makes a big difference in voice -- some characters are more proper and use very few contractions, and others are more relaxed and freely use contractions and informal language, some are verbose and some say a lot in a few words.  I think the key to developing voices is to view the characters as real people.  I've been known to sit around and have conversations with myself to get voices right.  Writing is a lot like acting and you have to be able to throw on many different faces to be effective.  

David Brown said...

I find my character's voices don't really come into their own until I've written nearly half of the project...at which point I have to re-write a lot of dialogue, needless to say :) I think Madeleine L'Engle said to throw away your first chapters with each project. That's probably good advice in developing voice. 

Jemima Pett said...

My characters are my guinea pigs, and they have their own blog, so I suppose I begin by understanding their individual voices there. Although I realised Victor was talking like George did the other day...
I always remember Stephen Sondheim saying how bad his writing for West Side Story was... the dialogue/libretto/lyrics for "I Feel Pretty" was just far too clever for the characters. 

Ava Jae said...

You make a great point about writing being like acting. I've heard about a lot of writers who have taken improv classes and found them to be very helpful. It's a similar skill, we just have to take it one step further and translate it onto the page. 

Ava Jae said...

Throw away, or rewrite entirely. Either way I think you're right that it takes a while to develop the voice--whether you work on it through outlining or actual writing differs from writer to writer, but it's not something that usually arrives fully developed. 

Ava Jae said...

Now that's interesting--your characters have their own blog? What a fun idea. :)

Linda said...

" rewrite my WIP while constantly asking myself if this is something my protagonist would think or say"

I had to do the same thing after an agent pointed out to me that I was not allowing my MC to do her own talking. She said, "Get out of the way and let your characters speak." And sometimes these characters might say things we don't like, but that's what makes the story so good.

Spiced Wine said...

My main character - in fact all my main characters in my series are male. I'm female. I found from the very beginning that they had very different voices from me. I was sitting at the computer one day, and a character and his story just fell on me. I thought about it and him for a year or two before writing.

I found it incredibly easy to let him have his voice; it was a strong one (I felt, and readers seem to think). I felt extremely freed by writing him as for a long time I had been increasingly worried about self-inserting. It is something all fledgling and young writers do, and I did it reclaim power, to face and overcome situations that had happened to me in my life. It's quite healing and cathartic, but by the time I reached thirty I was ashamed and embarrassed that every female character I wrote appeared to be me. I'd written for twenty years then, and was appalled that I was self-evidently such a poor writer that I couldn't lift myself out of that habit. I'm not that damned interesting, and I was sick of spending time with myself in a fictional world.

When my main male protagonist appeared and I began writing him, it felt wonderful. He was not me. Here I have to say that I believe it is very difficult to write a character who is nothing like you; there's nowhere to connect, so I do think that every character ever written has something in common with the author, but that is a long way from self-inserting. I let go, I let him have the wheel, live his life, have his lovers, wars, griefs, horrors, and triumphs. It was easy because he was, from his conception, so much stronger than me that my voice faded. I felt all I was doing was typing. It gave me a new enthusiasm for writing. If your character voice is strong, I think it's easy to let it through, and my goodness, how liberating it is!

Ava Jae said...

It can be difficult, at first, to find your characters' voices, but once you do I absolutely agree that it's a fantastic experience--especially if you've been having trouble with the self-inserting issue you mentioned, which is a common plight of the writer, especially at the beginning. One of my favorite parts of writing is discovering the characters and really learning their voices. There's nothing quite like it. :)


Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

Robin Red said...

Ohhh man. I feel a rewrite coming up. But then, the purpose of art is to reveal art and conceal the artist. I'm a bit too visible for my comforts.

Ava Jae said...

"Reveal art and conceal the artist"--I like that! That's a really smart way of looking at it.

Robin Red said...

I can't take credit for that — thank Oscar Wilde :)

Ava Jae said...

Well, thank you for sharing his quote, then. :)

ray said...

I do the same thing. I find the last thing you want to do as an author is have your character talk in the best manner you can muster with correct grammar. Real people mis-speak and throw in weird words and have strange life philosophies that come in their words.

ray said...

I think it all stems from imagination and emotion. As writers we like going over our text and working to making it better but the unique voice of a character needs investment of emotion which is a bit like putting on the hat of a stage actor.

Ava Jae said...

I agree that writing can definitely be like acting at times. Just acting on paper. :)

ray said...

Very much so. For myself, one of my first loves was acting and improv and I find that is invaluable when putting myself in the shoes of a character.

Ava Jae said...

I have terrible stage fright so the thought of improv totally terrifies me, but I definitely get why it's enjoyable to step into a character's shoes. :)

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