Tuesday, August 04, 2009

I hear voices...

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve always equated voice more with characters than with what I do manipulating things from behind the screen. I could be wrong about this, and heaven knows I am wrong about things constantly, but...well...here goes.

It’s very easy to populate a story with people who all speak far too much alike, so that when there are several of them involved in a dialogue portion, it winds up sounding like some schizophrenic patient having a conversation with all his/her invisible friends. I’ve seen this happen even in otherwise excellent authors’ novels. To make characters really stand out, there have to be subtle differences in the way they talk and interact with the world.

Quirks are easy to give to characters. One may be a real hypochondriac, or have a drinking problem, or always in people’s faces, whatever, but to make a character really stand out on the page, the author has to give each one differences in the ways they express themselves. It may be in the way they speak, but if you’re using multiple POVs in the construction of you plot, then characters also have to think and view the world differently. To my mind, these often subtle shadings can make characters really seem alive.

In my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark, I set the plot up with one main character (a female), but then also gave her 4 close (also female) friends. These are people who spent a lot of their formative years close together. I started them out by having commonalities in the way they spoke, figuring that this would give them the illusion of a shared past.

It didn’t work. Everyone who read the manuscript got confused as to who was who. Back to the drawing board. Next draft, I got feedback that I’d pushed too far in the opposite direction: the characters seemed false, as if I’d given them characteristics for the sake of characteristics. It wasn’t until two drafts farther down the road, that I began to feel my way out of the thicket in which I’d dumped myself. I tried to give every single one of these fine women personalities that would make them stand out from each other. It went far beyond the way they spoke, although that probably was the most important step. It also had to do with their attitudes, the way each one of them would respond to specific situations in the plot structure. It wound up being very hard work, but I think I’m a better writer for it.

So this is, to me, what voice is. If by “voice”, someone means the way an author writes, I think I’d have to disagree with the term. Seems to me that should be called “style”.

And I’ll leave discussion of that up to the experts.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points, Rick. I've also read a lot of characters who sound too similar during dialogue. I try to write dialogue where the characters' traits (excitability, sarcasm, etc.) shine through as they speak.

Mystery Writing is Murder

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Rick Blechta said...

As always, we can count on Anonymous to go right to the heart of the matter, cutting through all the verbal dross to hit us right between the eyes with the clarity of his artistic vision. Wow!! I'm stunned and humbled at the same time.

Alex said...

I always enjoy reading your blogs, learn new things all the time about the challenge of writing.

Rick Blechta said...


Thanks for the very kind words, and for listening — you too, Elizabeth.

But this needn't necessarily be a one-way conversation. I look at Type M as more of debate. Folks like you who comment often turn the blogs on their heads and send them off in a completely unexpected direction.

Just look no further than our friend Anonymous! ;)

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