Monday, March 28, 2011

Vox Populi - Or you know, your character's voices. Whichever

So there’s been a lot of hullabaloo made of late about that ever so elusive ‘Voice’ thing.  So being the trendy monkey that I am, and that people seem to be saying they think I’m halfway decent at it, I’m-a gonna follow up on that whole ‘Know your Strengths’ post of mine and write a little about my voice-ifying methods.  Hang on to your hats, folks.  This isn’t likely to get pedantic AT ALL.

So let’s start off slow.  What exactly is voice?  I think lots of people define it differently, but I’ve always found it easiest to relate it to dialogue, as to me they go hand in hand.  The voice is the narrator’s internal dialogue.  So by extension, a strong voice evolves naturally from strong dialogue.  In my not always humble opinion, you can’t separate the two.

So how do you go about getting better at dialogue?  You absolutely have to know your target audience of course – are you writing for kids, teens, or residents of nursing homes?  Whichever demographic it is – how much time do you spend around them?  Do you know how they talk?  Take a minute some time to just lurk, all creepy like, around members of your target audience.  Eavesdrop shamelessly.  Take notes!  Just try not to do it in a way that will, you know, get you arrested by the police for being a middle aged creeper lurking around a high school campus.  If you have kids, listen in on their phone conversations instead and when they protest tell them ITS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD AND THAT’S FINAL. 

Writing AND parenting tips today.  I’m on a roll.

Once you’ve got some stolen dialogue to review in your head, insert your characters into the conversation.  You’re writing about sassy teen girls at the mall?  Listen to some sassy teen girls at the mall.  Play that conversation back in your head.  And then just drop one of your characters into the middle of the conversation and see if you can keep it going.  Does your character fit?  Does she sound the same as the other girls?  If not, what can you do to tweak her dialogue, to fit in more?

When you’re confident your main character sounds like members of the audience you’re writing for, with authentic speech patterns and little character quirks – have them start telling their story.  Pretend you’re not writing for eventual editors and readers.  Pretend he or she is just relating their story to a group of their peers, like venting, or confiding.  Your narrator isn’t telling their story just for the sake of telling it.  That’s flat narration, and boring.  It stays on the page.  Even if you never actually spell it out, your protagonist has a PURPOSE to their story.  What is their reason for sharing it, for telling it?  Forget about your place as the author invisibly pulling puppet strings for a moment – you ARE your narrator, this is YOUR story – why are you telling it?  What do you want from your audience?  Do you want a sympathetic ear?  Do you want forgiveness or absolution from your audience?  Do you want advice, do you want to give a warning, or are you trying to prove a point?

Pull out a couple of your manuscripts and read the first couple of pages and ask yourself – what does your narrator want from the reader, and does that come through in the narration?

Next step in voice-ifying.

An active character is ALWAYS better than a passive one.  This is as true in narration as it is in dialogue and actual – well, action.  You don’t want your narrator to just deliver pertinent information.  Kill two birds with one stone.  Have them react to it as well.  If you’re giving information that doesn’t garner an emotional response from your character, why would it garner an emotional response from your reader?  And if it isn’t meant to garner a response, how necessary is it?  Sure, you need to include little details about your world and your plot to have a fully fleshed out manuscript, but to have a fully fleshed out world and plot, remember that your character, just like a human being, does not live in a vacuum.  He or she reacts to everything around them, everything that affects them.  In small ways just as much as large ones.

In Dust to Dust, its important that the reader learn that Micah’s from a family of magical children, each with their own unique gifts.  But its equally important that the reader learn how this affects him.  So yeah.  I could have introduced that information like this:

A midnight black hand reached for my ankle, but like all my siblings I had my own magic.  Trent could kill with shadows. Serena could drown you with your own tears. Alice walked through mirrors, Dennis could pull blood from a stone.  Instead, I pulled dust from every corner of the room and it stormed the air in furious clouds.


Instead, just give Micah an emotional reaction to being just one of many uniquely gifted siblings.

A midnight black hand reached for my ankle and I tapped my own magic. Dust raced from every corner of the room and stormed the air in furious clouds. The shadows kept coming, undeterred - and Mom wondered why I had insecurity issues.  Trent could kill with shadows. Serena could drown you with your own tears. Alice walked through mirrors, Dennis could pull blood from a stone, but me? Oh yeah. Fear the mystic might of my magical dust bunnies!

It’s the exact same information, but suddenly, the narrator is insecure and uses sarcasm to cover that. 

Not to mention it’s the easiest way I know to fake-out the dreaded info dump.  Pull your three favorite books off the shelf, the ones with narrators that grabbed hold of you the tightest, and get a notebook.  Flip through different parts of the book, and look at how they impart information in specific scenes.  How did they show you what their surroundings looked like?  How did they tell you what they themselves looked like?  How did they describe their love interests, their enemies, and their central conflict?  You’re not looking for the words they used, or the language, but the HOW, the delivery system.  Look at how a narrator with a strong voice describes a monster – and how they weave their emotional response to that monster into that information.  Then look at your own manuscripts.  Are you doing the same thing?  How could you do it better?

Now for the biggie.

Diversifying your voice.

This is especially crucial with first person POVs.  First person POVs are awesome.  They’re like cheating!  First person POV is literally tailor made for getting you right into your protag’s head and talking with their voice.  The danger here is that it makes it very easy to mistake your character’s voice for YOUR voice.  When everything you’re writing is I said this or I did that, it’s easy for the line to blur between your character and you and bits of you to start leaking into your character’s voice.  Different 1st person manuscripts start to sound alike.

So how do you differentiate? 

Insert the NAKED MAN TEST.

I put it all in capitals because it’s that excellent.

The trick of a unique voice lies in knowing your character inside and out, all of his or her little quirks – the things that make them stand out.  Everyone reacts to the same situations differently.  We say hello in our own unique styles, introduce ourselves differently, approach conversations differently.  We might have the same butt-kicking demon slaying powers, but a demon comes at us, and we’re all gonna react differently.

HOWEVER.  We don’t always react THAT differently.  Most of us are still going to introduce ourselves with a casual hello.  We approach conversations similarly, the standard rules of society and etiquette don’t have us as perfect clones of one another, but given that their whole purpose is to streamline interactions so that radically different people can find common ground, they aren’t the best place to start when trying to make your character different.

So skip the little day to day stuff, and test your characters with extreme, radical, completely off the wall scenarios and see how they react to THAT.

The naked man test is so named because the premise is simple:  dump your character, male or female, good or bad, young or old, in a room with a naked man and see how they react.  And err, keep in mind, this test was not designed for MG writers, so use your own judgment and adjust the parameters accordingly please.

But you get the idea, right?  It’s such a ludicrous, out of the blue, unprecedented scenario that there’s no pre-programmed rules or etiquette for how to deal with such a situation.  Your character has no choice but to react honestly.  Do they ridicule them?  Are they embarrassed for them?  Are they insulted, offended, just completely weirded out?  Are they more concerned with what might have happened to the man that he’d be in this situation in the first place, do they show this concern honestly or mask it with humor or do they huddle up in a corner and rock back and forth because they’re so freaked out by full frontal male nudity? 

Then take that character out of the room and dump another character in.  Do they react the same way?  If so, ask yourself, do you really KNOW your characters, are they fully fleshed out, or are you just having them react to your plot and your story the same way YOU would react to it?

And finally, for a last test, take the first page of your manuscript, like the 250 word sample of Dust to Dust I posted last week.  Swap your main character out for the main character of another one of your manuscripts, and see how it reads.  The idea is to change as few words and lines as possible – while shifting the story to fit your other MC properly.  Less is more.  You want your voice strong enough to shine through in just a spare line here, a little emotion there.

The main character of my adult urban fantasy - Good Intentions - is named Carter Daniels.  He’s pretty much everything Micah isn’t.  They’re both fairly snarky, yes, they use sarcasm in similar ways.  But where Micah is self-deprecating, Carter is egotistical.  Where Micah’s insecure, Carter thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Which he’d probably try to convince you he invented.  So let’s take a look at what happens if I were to write Carter as the main character of Dust to Dust, with the same backstory as Micah, the same age, the same powers – but keeping his own unique voice and personality.  The real version, in Micah's voice, is HERE.  Then read Carter's version right here.


For my sixteenth birthday, my idiot brother tried to kill me again.

I was at Starbuck’s getting a celebratory scone when the shadows peeled off the walls and came for me. I yawned and used the fat Wall Street exec next to me for a shield. The hot chick I’d been eyeing as a birthday present to myself turned, eyebrows raised over heavily made up eyes.  Her perfect lips parted and I waited for her to breathe her phone number to me.  Wait, nope, that was actually her screaming because magic shadows were slashing through the fabric of her Grateful Dead t-shirt.  Well, I suppose the knight in shining armor routine could help set the mood.  Thanks for the assist, big bro.

I grabbed her leg and yanked her down to the floor with me. Terror was the coffee shop's new special of the day as patrons and employees stampeded towards the lone exit. I suffered a few accidental kicks while crab-walking me and my damsel in distress under the nearest table. Which was of course brimming with shadows.

Hmm.  Might not have thought that one all the way through.

A midnight black hand reached for my ankle and I tapped my own magic. Dust raced from every corner of the room and shaped itself into the knife it’d once been part of.  I slashed at the shadows and they reared back, startled.  Typical.  The others were always so impressed with themselves.  Ooh Trent could kill with shadows.  Serena could drown you with your own tears.  Alice walked through mirrors, Dennis could pull blood from a stone, but me? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Everything came from dust.  Everything returned to it.  Do I really need to spell it out?  Fear the mystic might of my magical dust bunnies, suckers!


So.  Anyone else want to play?  Its fun, I promise!


  1. That's so hilariously good, Kalen! LOL! I can see the differences w/out even going back and reading your other excerpt again (that's how good it stuck in my head; pat yourself on the back for your literary prowess).

    I adore the idea of TNMT (the naked man test). You could do a whole post on that alone! What great advice!

    As for dropping a character from one book into another ... I guess that's just not for me. I like to keep my scenes pure. HEH. I'm not into all of this interspacial scene swapping. Although you did a super job of it. Awesome post, Zoolander. ;-)

  2. Pity you didn't win the Secret Agent Contest, I was certain you would. Nonetheless, you've come a long way from your aforementioned opening to the one you have now.

    Fantastic job!

    There were many cliches in that excerpt, and it begs the question if the entire MS is as such. Some, if not all, of those elements have been done: shadow magic, dust magic (interesting to see how you will evolve this as the series progresses), down-on-his-luck guy likes hot girl, and so on.. .Though try as I might, I can't shake the feeling that your MC sounds exactly like the hero from Sorcerer's Apprentice. If anything, yours is a tad snarkalicious. :D

    I've prattled on too much. I came by to tell you how much I liked your entry and was disappointed it didn't win.

    Good luck with this and never give up!

  3. @Anita - LOL fine, be that way! Keep your manuscript's integrity pure! And yeah, the naked man test is awesome. I can't take creit for it, that goes to Allan Heinberg, one of the writers of the TV show Grey's Anatomy.

    @TD McFrost - Thanks so much for the kind words and the support! As for cliches, I figure there's nothing new under the sun, so why waste time trying to find a completely original idea just for the sake of being sparkly and new...I'd rather take an old 'cliche'idea and make it new again. So hopefully my shadow and dust magic plays out differently than expected. Interesting to hear about the hero from Sorcerer's Apprentice - thats one I actually haven't read, and had no interest in the movie, but I might have to check that out. But thanks again, and good luck with your own work!

  4. Thanks so much! It's awesome how humble you are.

    I actually forgot to follow you (LOL), so I came back asap.

    I see nothing but great things from you, and I am really looking forward to reading more of Dust to Dust.

    So, on that sparkly note, have a great day Mr. Kalen, future Oscar Winner, and NYT Bestselling author. :D

    And don't you dare be modest about the whole thing!

  5. Hahaha. You appeal to my ego. You can stay.

    But seriously. Knock on wood. No jinxing. Thanks again though, and see you around!

  6. I really enjoyed this post about voice, because let's face it, voice is one of the most important and difficult aspects of YA literature, if not the most important and difficult aspect.

    Although I think voice is more than just the narrator’s internal dialogue, I think I understand what you are getting at. Plus as an actor I think you know how important dialogue—inner and spoken—is.

    I think my one caveat is that while it’s good to have your character sound like the target audience, make sure your character still sounds like your character, make sure he still sounds like himself. I guess in short: Stay true to your character/story. Because your sassy teen girl might not want to fit in those you might see at the mall. Or on the other hand, she might very well want to fit in.

    I count voice among my strengths as well. I’ll have to try your character swap idea. I think it’s also a nice way to see how you can improve a scene just by changing a word or twisting a phrase.

    Of course since I tend to like writing books with dual first-person POVs, I have to manage and differentiate between two distinct voices. (Although of course all characters have their own voice, but usually it’s the main characters whose voices must shine.) I’m still learning on not merely relying on the use of different fonts, but on making sure each voice is distinct and unique. But I suppose that’s why they call it a writing process.