Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finding Your Character's Voice

A popular writer's conference forum is an editors and/or agents Q&A discussion panel. During these open forum discussions, someone usually asks "What are you looking for in a manuscript?" 

#1 response: good writing.

That seems logical. No mystery there. 

Another response: a character with a unique voice.

Now there's a mystery. What is "voice" and how do I help my character get one? I've read books by other authors who've mastered 'voice' and I’ve studied writer’s how-to books. But the concept still felt elusive, vague, and mysterious.

Finally, at long last, author friends said, "You're manuscript has a great voice."

Really? When did that happen?

To nail down what I’d accomplished by accident so I could repeat it in the future, I looked back through previous drafts of my manuscript. After comparing versions of specific passages, here’s what I discovered.

Example 1 setup: Eleven-year-old Angie is returning to school after a long illness. Her older brother, Brandon, is waiting at the bus stop with her.
Angie wished she could ride her bike to school instead of the bus. She knew Brandon felt the same way. She suspected Mom or Dad (maybe both) had threatened or bribed Brandon into taking the bus, too. He’d scowled more than usual this morning, so they’d probably used a threat mixed with some big-brother-must-take-care-of-little-sister guilt.
The passage establishes that neither Angie or Brandon is happy about the this arrangement, but it lacks the ‘unique’ quality of Angie’s voice.  
Buses. Smelly, bumpy, and crowded. Disgusting. But it was better than getting dropped off by a parent. Slightly. And Brandon’s presence at the bus stop smacked suspiciously of parental spying by proxy. Mom or Dad, maybe both, had probably played the big-brothers-must-take-care-of-little-sisters guilt card.
The second version captures the same scene and the same discontent, but it also conveys the character's emotions the way the character might think it. It is in her ‘voice.’
Example 2 setup: Angie is searching for her friends in a crowded school cafeteria. 
Angie threaded her way through the cafeteria tables.
We know she’s walking though the cafeteria, but we don’t know what she’s thinking or see the other students as she does so.
Angie threaded her way past a group wearing all black, a cheerleader-wanna-be group, and Brandon and his snorting-soda-through-their-noses group.

The rewrite defines the setting and since Angie bypasses all these ‘groups,’ we also know she doesn’t feel comfortable joining any of these groups for lunch.
Example 3 setup: Jahma is a six-inch winged fantasy creature. He’s sitting on a bench next to Angie, when Angie’s best friend, Erin, joins them.
Jahma barely escaped being squashed when Erin plopped down next to Angie.
She plopped? Who (other than a writer) would say that they plopped into a chair?
Jahma fluttered away a micro-second before getting butt-squashed by Erin.
A little butt-squashing is more pre-teen and adds a bit of humor.

So what is ‘voice’?

For me, it’s allowing my character to tell their story in their own words. It adds emotion, shows setting through the details the character chooses to dwell on, and pulls the reader into the story by showing everything, even thoughts, through the point of view of the character.

So instead of putting beautifully written words into my characters’ mouths, I listen to their ‘voice’ and relate their story as they would want me to tell it to the reader.

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