Deeper into Voice

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by Darcy Pattison

Q: How do you go deeper into a character’s voice?

A. I wonder if this question is about the character’s voice or about characterization in general. When a critiquer says you need to go deeper into a character’s voice, it could be either.

Characterization

If characterization is the problem, there are a couple things you might consider. First, novels enable a reader to get into the hearts and minds of a character. In movies or theater, you never know directly what a character feels/thinks; you can only know it indirectly from their actions and dialogue. But in a novel, readers can experience an event with the character.

If the reader is feeling like s/he wants to be deeper into a character, consider looking at how you are expressing the characters thoughts, hopes, dreams, angers, fears, etc. Partly it’s the emotional response, but sometimes, it’s just the thought process: does the character make snap decisions, or take a long, circuitous route to a decision. For each small action, the character should have a reaction. Certainly for every scene, the character’s reactions should be clear.

Second, consider how unique your character is, or could be. We don’t read to experience mediocrity. We want characters who are interesting, outrageous, pathetic, loathsome. Out of the ordinary. Bigger than life (to use a cliche).

Voice

If voice is the problem, then you’ll look to your language. A friend was having trouble with a novel in which a dragon was a main character. We talked about what sort of language the dragon would use. My friend decided that he would use lots of “s” words, would have very long sentence structures to show that he liked to hear himself talk, and would always be formal. She revised, trying to incorporate these things. It was a rather mechanical sort of thing to try.

But a surprising thing happened: about halfway through the revision, she stopped thinking consciously about how to create the dragon’s voice. Instead, those language characteristics had BECOME the dragon’s voice.

The writer didn’t “find” the voice. She didn’t use trial-and-error and hope she got a good voice. She made a conscious decision based on characteristics of language that created a certain type of rhythm patterns, a tone of formalism and self-importance, and worked with those variables until it became the only possible voice for this dragon.

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