Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: Elements of Voice

Today I'd like to welcome Laurel Garver to the blog. She writes the blog "Laurel's Leaves" and is the author of the recently released novel, Never Gone. (NG has just made it to the top of my Kindle TBR list, and I can't wait to read it.)

Elements of Voice

Sometimes the term “voice” is used interchangeably with “style.” What I’d like to talk about is not that sense of “authorial voice,” but rather how to develop character voices that are distinct from one another. If you write from multiple points of view, this is an essential craft to learn. But it’s also helpful for making sure that your fiction isn’t one-note and that the characters around the protagonist seem just as unique as he or she does.

How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament. A morose Oxford graduate will have a different manner of expressing himself than a scrappy graffiti writer from the Bronx.

Here are a few examples from my novel Never Gone. Can you guess which is the teen from New York, which is her middle-aged British uncle and which is her grandfather from central Pennsylvania?

-- “Your mother ain’t right in the head, seems to me. When you love someone, you can’t throw it away. You hang on with every ounce of strength. Right?”

 -- Cecily bubbles with fake cheer, no doubt trying to make up for being such a grinchy wench to me lately. She tells a dorky story about crushing on Ollie Mawbry, and her little horse-riding escapades to spy on him. No surprise he ignored her. Guys don’t exactly dig stalker chicks.

-- “It’s good of you to take an interest in Liza’s pony,” he says. “She’s always banging on endlessly about him. It’s hard for us to be enthusiastic anymore.”

Notice the use of cadence (speech rhythm) and key terminology. You immediately get a sense of place from “ain’t” and “banging on.” You get a sense of age from “right in the head” and “stalker chicks.”

Developing varied diction comes from doing lots of research. A few places to start: Keep a log of overheard conversations and transcribe speech from YouTube videos. Beware of taking your cues from TV, film or other novels, because those writers may not have worked from life. Go to the source as much as you can.

These “tip of the mind” thoughts are a huge part of character voice because they tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. Think of the word-association games psychotherapists use. When your character hears the word “home,” does he think “fried chicken,” “fear,” or “fantasy”? Any one of these answers gives a window into an intriguing story. Associations can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. Associations show up in the way characters describe things, and especially how they make comparisons, such as similes and metaphors.

Here are a few associations at work from Never Gone:

--Images burst in my mind like sudden sun through stained glass. (association of a church-goer)

--“Crikey,” Uncle says. “We’re in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.” (association of a reader of classics)

Attitudes are essentially value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected. The fireworks display is awesome or lame; the new teacher is nice or mean or airheaded or so cool; the flat tire is infuriating or just typical of my hopeless life. Look back at my first examples and you'll see strong expressions of attitudes. Danielle's grandfather finds fault with how her mother grieves. Dani herself is exasperated with her aunt's attempts to be cheerful. Dani's Uncle appreciates what he sees as her patient forbearance of his child, who he judges as repetitive.

Diction and associations will play into how attitudes are expressed, but by golly, all characters should have them. A character that never expresses an attitude will come off as emotionless, or perhaps on the autism spectrum. He’ll see fireworks and say “chemical explosions are causing light effects in the sky.”

Getting to know your characters beyond just age and occupation will help you develop distinct voices that engage readers and make your story come alive.

Which elements of voice come most easily to you? How might research help you create more distinctive voices for your characters?


Laurel Garver is the author of Never Gone, a novel about grief, faith and finding love when all seems lost. A word nerd, Indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

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