Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!
I like ventriloquism. This probably stems from growing up with the Muppet Show and a steady diet of Sesame Street. There are numerous, talented, ventriloquist out there, but the one I’m going to reference is Jeff Dunham. He should be easy for you to find (he’s very popular now). (If you get a chance look for Nina Conte too.)
Jeff Dunham is popular (go ahead and google him, take a look at his act), but the main reason I want to talk about him, is because during his act he has multiple puppets (“friends”) that he brings on stage. There’s Walter, the old man; Bubba Jay, the hillbilly; Peanut, the weirdo; and Jose Jalapeno on a stick, the pepper on a stick. Mr. Dunham is popular because he’s good at throwing his voice and because he has so many interesting and funny characters. You’d be hard pressed to confuse Walter with Bubba Jay, or Peanut with Jose. At some point in the act, he even has Peanut and Jose out together. It’s very fun to watch.
Now, you might be saying: I thought this was a writing blog, why are you talking about ventriloquists? (You might also be thinking: I hate when he writes like it’s his readers talking to him. That is a different subject for a different post.)
The reason I’m bring up ventriloquists is because I’d like to continue the discussion on character. Specifically, I’d like to talk about character voice.
The best analog I can find for writing a character and finding its voice is ventriloquism. Think about it. We all know it’s the ventriloquist making the puppet move, making the puppet talk, all the dialogue is the ventriloquist’s. The point is though, at some point, and this might only be for an instant, we forget that and accept the puppet as a separate character.
It’s the same for writing. We know it’s the writer making the character do things. We know it’s the writer making the character say things. All the dialogue is the writer’s. The art, the magic, of storytelling is making the characters feel real.
To make the characters feel real we have to keep in mind three questions. 1) How does your character talk? Do they take the ‘g’ off the end of ‘-ing’ words? Making ‘making’ into ‘makin’? Or changing ‘changing’ into ‘changin’? Do they st-st-stutt-tt-tter? Do they not use contractions? The point: Can we identify the character by what they say? 2) How does your character think? This can be an extension of talk, especially in first person stories when readers can get the character’s thoughts first hand. It can also mean their actions. Is Joey the action orientated type, jumping into a situation without thinking about it? Or is Joey the sit back and overthink type? Or is Joey a coward? These characteristics stuff the character, making them stick out from the background (and can be great ways of foreshadowing how they’re going to react in a situation; also gives them something to overcome later in the story—or not—whatever’s more dramatic). 3) How does your character sound? Are they sarcastic, entitled, mean, sincere. This is a combination of several things. If your character acts to help people and tries their best, then they will sound sincere when they talk and think. If your character acts to help people for the glory and does their best to prove they’re the best, they will sound cocky and entitled. If your character acts to help people for a reward and does their best to show they’re worth the price, then they will sound jaded, possibly cold.
See how this works?
I do have some writing advice from one of my writing mentors. He has a very strict policy of not writing from the first person perspective unless he can clearly hear the character’s voice. It’s a good rule. If the main character’s voice is clear in your head, it will be clear (with some work) on the page, and keep the character easily identifiable.
I’d like to give you a real world example involving character voices. Everyone familiar with Veronica Roth? She wrote Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant. Disclaimer: I only read Divergent. The following example is from my wife’s reading of the whole series. So, apparently, in the third book Ms. Roth goes back and forth between two characters to tell the story. Chapter one in character one’s voice; chapter two in character two’s voice; chapter three in character one’s voice…and so on. It took my wife two years (three?) to finish the book. She would start it, get frustrated with it, and put it down again. She had to force herself (her words) to finish the book. She had several complaints about the book, but the number one complaint, the complaint I heard about multiple times a day until she was done with the novel, was character voices. She couldn’t tell who she was following in a chapter because the two characters sounded so alike to her. There were several exclamations during the reading of the book, when she thought it was from the first character’s point of view, and then someone would call the character by name and she realized it was from the second character’s point of view. She didn’t like the book, and not only that, it brought the whole series down for her. So, a cool idea [telling the story from two differing perspectives] turned into a gimmick, and not a good one (again, her words).
Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.