Writing Excuses 12.2: How to Nail Character Voice in First Person
Key points: A memorable first person voice? Sentence structure, rhythm and accent. Accent is word choices and phrasing, not just dialect. Use first person to showcase characters with an interesting voice, but third person is easier. Use a text-to-speech program to read your writing out loud! Snarky is easy, but show us the thought process, what’s behind the face the character shows everyone. What’s their attitude, their too factor? First person is good for wordplay. Think about the categories of words your character might use. Be aware that no one is snarky in their own thinking, or has an accent in their own voice.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Two.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Nail Voice in the First Person.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] And we, this year, have two new guest hosts that are going to be with us all year.
[Brandon] We’re really excited by this.
[Brandon] Mary Anne, will you tell the audience a little bit about yourself?
[Mary Anne] Sure. I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj. I write in multiple genres. I started as an erotica writer for about a decade. Then mainstream lit for about a decade. Now I’m mostly writing science fiction and fantasy. I teach at the University of Illinois, creative writing. For the most part, what I do works with postcolonial lit and sci-fi.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are really excited to have you…
[Mary Anne] [garbled fun]
[Brandon] On the podcast.
[Mary] She is also an excellent baker. I am just putting that out there.
[Brandon] And Wesley?
[Wesley] And she has a purple house. We’ll add that, too.
[Wesley] But my name is Wesley Chu. I am a science fiction/fantasy author best known for The Tao and the Time Salvager series. I started out being in a computer science major who worked in corporate for a long, long time. Became an actor and a stuntman. Now I’m writing stories full-time.
[Mary] As trivia for our listeners, Wesley and Brandon went to the same high school.
[Brandon] I was going to say, we’re old high school buddies. I mean, we didn’t know each other in high school, but we’re buddies.
[Wesley] Nebraska’s not a big place.
[Brandon] Yes, Nebraska is not a big place.
[Brandon] So, our topic this week is how to nail voice in the first person. Last week, we kind of talked a little bit about introducing first person. I find that first person is the best place for character voice. Now, we’re talking about character voice this week. We’ll talk about author’s voice later on. A dynamic first person can just really get you into someone’s viewpoint. I want to nail how to do that. And how to talk about it. So how do you make a character memorable through using their voice?
[Mary] So one of the things for me, and this is coming from the audiobook aspect, and then into this. One of the things for me that a lot of authors overlook is something really simple, which is your sentence structure. When we’re talking about character voice, creating a character voice for audiobook, we say that it consists of a couple of different factors. One is the rhythm, which you control by punctuation. Rhythm and pacing. Then, also the accent. We think of accent as being the way words are actually pronounced, but it’s not. It’s not just that. It is also the word choice you make, the way you phrase things. For instance, being from the South, when I am home, I’m much more likely to say, “I’m going to go on over to the store,” rather than just, “I’m going to the store.” So one of the things that you can do with the voice is to actually think about… Even just exaggerating it a little bit, but think about those rhythms.
[Mary Anne] My mom always says “On the light” instead of “Turn on the light.” It’s a very common South Asian thing.
[Brandon] Oh, cool. See, I love things like this. New authors think they need to do a dialect to do character voice. When if you listen to most people, it’s just a few words here and there changed that can evoke an entire feel of a voice.
[Wesley] I mean, it’s been my experience that dialect writing is almost a fail. Every time.
[Mary Anne] Actually, Toby Buckell had really good advice for this at one point. He writes Caribbean science fiction, and he does right in dialect, but he says that he puts in about a quarter of what you would get if you are actually in a room talking to people. That is sort of the right amount to give readers the feel of the dialect without it sounding forced and artificial.
[Mary] Well, this is one of the things to remember, is that when you are listening to someone with an accent, that if you had to write down a transcript, you wouldn’t write it down phonetically, you would write down the words. Like eff ahm tawken the whay ma peepole dew, wan ah ma cuzzins wans sayad yah’ll evah had a burr-ee-toe? You would not actually spell burrito b_u_ burr_ee_to b_u_r_r_e_e_t_o_w. You wouldn’t spell it that way. You would spell it burrito. You might snicker while you’re doing it. So the only time that you would see that kind of thing with the character voice is if the character themselves noticed it. In a first-person narration, you don’t notice your own accent. Your own accent is neutral.
[Brandon] Right. That’s a really good point. I hadn’t even thought about that, but that’s really good. What about not-accent stuff? What can you do that’s not a dialect?
[Mary] Well, I’m going to point out that it is all dialect.
[Brandon] It is all dialect.
[Brandon] But using it to characterize stuff, right? That’s characterizing their place of origin.
[Mary] It’s characterizing their place of origin and their class. But characterizing also their taste.
[Wesley] Their age.
[Mary] Their age. All of these things are going to relate to word choice. Characterizing their attitude. One of the things that is very telling is the… An exercise I have my students do sometimes is… I’m like, “Okay, I want you to say, ‘What did you say?’ Now I want you to find different ways to say that without using the words what did you say, but to express anger.”
[Mary Anne] I think for me… There’s this thing that the painters do. They take their students to the art institute and they sit there and they copy the masters. Right? I always think it’s interesting that writing doesn’t have that tradition. Because I think we could learn a lot from it. I just finished teaching Ben Franklin in my American Lit class. In his autobiography, he talks about how he wanted to be a great orator, and so he… When he was… Ah, like a teenager, he sat and he copied out speeches by famous people to get those inflections and those rhythms into his head. So that would be my recommendation, is to find the people who do great first-person voices… And I’m thinking of like Catcher in the Rye, and copy it out. Like literally take a little while, like copy out a couple paragraphs, maybe a short story, and get the feel of it and read it out loud at the same… As well.
[Mary] I actually have done that when I was trying to mimic Austen. But that was for third person narration. But I think one of the things that… One of the dangers with this is that you have to make sure that whoever’s voice you’re copying is a voice that goes with the narration that you’re aiming for. As you were talking, I was thinking about one of the things that makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling is the attitude of the character, the personality of the character comes through.
[Mary Anne] This is… Honestly, this is my hesitation with first person in general. I don’t want to… I know we’re not supposed to talk about third person yet, we’re focusing on first person, but I’ll say I think writers often default to first person initially and I think first person is harder. I think. Because in third person, you can have someone who is not… Who doesn’t necessarily have an interesting voice, but is an interesting person and you can write about them. first person I think is limiting. It’s meant to… It showcases characters who do have an interesting voice.
[Brandon] I think you’re right. Absolutely.
[Wesley] I mean… Well, I feel like third person, you can… I mean, so when I narrate in third person, I actually have the narrator almost think from the viewpoint of the character.
[Mary] Free indirect speech.
[Wesley] So I don’t… I have a very thin barrier between first and third person. One thing that Mary Anne said that was actually really helpful that I’ve just started doing recently is I have a text-to-speech program that I play back all my writing now. It really helps me kind of nail down that voice.
[Brandon] Wow. I’ve never heard anyone do that.
[Mary Anne] That’s a great idea.
[Wesley] I used to read it out loud. After like two hours of reading my own stuff out loud…
[Mary Anne] I know. It’s very hard for novels, right? I read all my short stories out loud as like the final pass, is I’m going to read it out loud. But reading like the seventh draft of a novel out loud, you want to shoot something, right?
[Brandon] I’m sure Mary does it seven times.
[Mary] I do. Although I always make sure that I’m doing it for an audience. Because otherwise, I will go on to autopilot. I have… Andrew, who is engineering for us today, knows this. I have, in fact, fallen asleep while narrating before.
[Mary Anne] I could totally see that. You just zone out.
[Mary] You just totally zone out. This is actually something that can happen when the voice is not compelling. So… You don’t want your audience to be doing that. But you figure if the narrator can do that while actually speaking out loud, there is a problem.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to break us here for our book of the week. Actually, the book is one that Mary Anne is going to pitch to us, Perennial.
[Mary Anne] So this is a little unusual for me. Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m totally fine now, but I went through the whole five months of chemo, surgery, months of radiation. It was about a year-long process. So I wanted to write something fun, so I started writing this romance, which is not normally my genre, I’ve been mostly in science fiction lately. But it’s a little romance, it’s about 15,000 words. The protagonist… One of the protagonists is this Scottish South Asian guy… Very hot, I think…
[Mary Anne] Who runs a little garden shop. The other one is a woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. So it kind of follows them over the course of a year.
[Brandon] Sounds awesome. How can people get a hold of it?
[Mary Anne] It will be certainly on Amazon and we’ll find out where else. But hopefully widely available.
[Brandon] Excellent. Excellent.
[Brandon] All right. So bringing this back to first person. One of the questions I wanted to ask… So I notice particularly in YA, but kind of across sci-fi/fantasy, you find that the first-person voice is kind of this snarky character, very common these days. Is it… How do you write that if you aren’t yourself snarky, if you want to do it, and/or are there other ways you can use first person to characterize personality other than having the same snarky character that gets used a lot? It can be very effective.
[Mary Anne] I have to say, I’m not snarky, except when I’m very tired.
[Mary Anne] So like I think part of it is kind of like quieting down your internal editor. Maybe you guys don’t have this problem, but I was raised to be a good girl, and you don’t say those things, you try not to think those things, but they are in the back of your head. Right? So when I’m very tired, I can sort of like… Then the voice comes out.
[Brandon] Mine sounds like Wes Chu.
[Mary] What does that sound like?
[Brandon] I’m not going to do it. I won’t… I can’t… I mean, I locked that voice away, far, far away behind seven doors.
[Wesley] I was about to say that snarky is the easiest setting that you can go. But now I just like… I am the easiest setting?
[Mary] But one of the things that I think that you can do with snarky is to make it… Like, if you have the character who is the nice girl, is to show that thought process. That you have the thought, and you’re like, “Then I push it down, and then I say the thing that I’m supposed to say.” But that is one of the things that can really lead to depth of character is when… And one of the true advantages of first person is that you can demonstrate the difference between a character’s internal life and the face that they present to other people.
[Brandon] Wes, you’re pretty good at this.
[Wesley] Am I? Well, thank you. So the thing about snarky is… Snarky for me… What I said earlier about how it was kind of the easiest setting? It really is the easiest setting. Because we all want to veer towards like… Okay, so… No, being quickwitted. Because it’s a very fast response to things. Like Mary said, if you’re dealing with a non-snarky character, there’s a thought process that goes with it. Okay, so when something happens to them, how do they reach that conclusion for what they say? Snarky is kind of like… almost like you’re bouncing something off a wall. So how… I guess, how do I do snarky? With my characters, I don’t think about them being snarky. I think about their thought process. Their years of experience, and how do they reach… That relationship they have with the person, before I have them say a response.
[Mary] I feel like the attitude of the character is the thing that is driving snarkiness. It’s… That there is something specific that they are frustrated by… Snark is driven by something. This is… If you want to write a character who’s not snarky, then you think about what is their attitude? What is the thing that is driving them? There’s a thing that Patrick Bristow taught when I was… Here, let me do some name dropping. When I was at the Jim Henson Diversity Puppetry Training Program…
[Mary Anne] I’m still super impressed by that.
[Mary] No, it was so much fun. I’m going to talk about that every chance I get. But one of the things that he did for having us come up with characters is he had something that he called the too factor. T_o_o. That your character had an attribute that was too pronounced. So they might have… They might be too prim. They might be too vain. They might be too angry. There’s some… They might be too fastidious. Whatever that too factor is could be a driver for their attitude. It very naturally led to creating different compelling voices. So this is something that I think that you can apply to a first-person character. If you don’t want snark, what is the thing that’s driving them? What is their character flaw, and how does that express in their language choices?
[Brandon] So, my most best-selling first-person narrative is from the viewpoint of someone who is too earnest. Right? He’s always getting into trouble. He is too quick to say, “Someone needs to do something. Everyone’s standing around talking. I’m going to go do it.” I actually manifest this through metaphors that he will say that are bad metaphors.
[Brandon] Because it’s the first thing that pops in his head to describe what he’s coming up with. Which gave me fertile ground to have someone… He’s not actually snarky, but he’s funny. Because he says things that… Like, “She was perkier than a sack full of caffeinated puppies.” Right?
[Brandon] The first thing that pops in his head, he says it. The sun rose above the horizon like a giant radioactive Manatee. Right? You’re like, “This makes no sense. This is a terrible metaphor.” But it’s him. Because this is the first thing that pops in his head. Then, using that character, then showing… his character arc across three books is you need to learn to stop and think, number one, about the stuff you say, and number two, about running headlong into danger and getting everyone else into danger. It worked beautifully to have a linguistic quirk that manifests the character quirk, which was also something that would make the reader smile. Particularly when, as you said, he thinks of them and starts not saying them all. Which is great, because it shows a little restraint.
[Mary Anne] I’d love to jump off that, because I do think that first person is great for wordplay, for characters that enjoy that. I had an anecdote, but I wasn’t sure how PG this podcast needs to be…
[Brandon] We try to keep things YA appropriate.
[Mary Anne] Okay. I think I’m good. So I can talk around this. When I was an erotica writer, I was on this mailing list where at one point we were coming up with terms for female masturbation. Because one of the problems of writing about sex is that the language is often very limited. It’s clinical, or it’s coarse, or just vague. So we had come up with a bunch of terms. I ended up taking them and putting them into a story where the character, A Jewel of a Woman, it was a little flash piece, but she was just sort of talking about herself. It was almost like a monologue as much as a story. She would kind of run through these terms as she was going. It ends up funny. I mean, that is, I think, one of the real strengths of first person, is that wordplay makes people laugh out loud. It’s a great piece to read at an open mic.
[Mary] That reminds me… I’m like, “Oh, right. I’m actually in the process of writing two first-person novels right now.” The decisions that I made are… Because it’s based on Lady Astronaut, which is a novella that already exists.
[Brandon] Which you should all go read, it’s fantastic.
[Mary] Thank you. But it means that I’m already locked into some things. I didn’t think about the fact I was now sitting down to write two novels in which my main character is a mathematician, and I am really bad at math. She’s an astronaut. She’s Jewish. And, she’s a 1950s housewife. So it’s like all of these things that are… That I am not. But making sure that I am reflecting that in her voice has made her sound very specific. So one of the things that… One of the euphemisms that she uses at one point, because they’re dealing with all of this rocketry, is, “So, do we have ignition?”
[Mary Anne] Nice.
[Mary] Her husband is like, “All thrusters firing.”
[Mary] But it is so tied to the character’s experience and to their attitude and to the lens that they view life through. Whereas, if I was talking about that myself as a puppeteer, I would be talking about the insertion of a rod, which is a completely legitimate puppetry term that then becomes much like thrusters firing is a completely legitimate rocketry term.
[Mary Anne] So there’s that…
[Mary] How did we get down this path?
[Mary Anne] No, no [garbled]
[Brandon] I don’t know.
[Mary Anne] [I understand] I just want to say, there’s an exercise I do that I think you could translate to general first person. So this is for people who are writing sex scenes, I asked them to make categories of clinical, coarse sex scenes…
[Mary] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Mary Anne] And put the words in the different categories. So do you think breasts, for example,…
[Brandon] Which one it goes in.
[Mary Anne] Which category would you put it in? Right? So when you’re writing a character, you want to think about what terms with the character use. Maybe they would say, “Down there.” Then that’s what you should use. Right? So I think anytime you’re doing first person, in any area that would have specialized language, that’s something you can do as an exercise is…
[Mary] Like Grandma would never even say, “Down there.”
[Brandon] Right. No, totally.
[Wesley] One thing, like… taking it back to the snark real quick, one of the pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of writers do is, like when they’re kind of thinking in their own head, they’re snarky in their own head. If you think about it, how often are you actually snarky while you think about? So you might be snarky in response to other people, when you talk to them, but when you’re actually thinking through like a process…
[Mary] You aren’t generally snarking. I think that goes back to a certain degree to the attitude. That when you’re being logical, that is not a point when you would be snarky. I think that’s a great point.
[Brandon] I’m going to have to cut it here. It’s a great discussion. But we do have some homework that Mary is going to give to us.
[Mary] Right. So, here’s your homework. What I want you to do is I want you to write, about a page, maybe two, first person and you’ve got a character who is trying to accomplish something. If you don’t have anything in your head, then I’m going to say that you have a baker, and the baker is attempting to deliver some bagels. Then, I want you to write it again, but this time, your main character is not a baker, and I want you to have them go through the same task. The goal of this is to see how the character’s attitude and the way their lens affects the world, affects how they relay the story of this bagel delivery, or whatever it is that you want to do.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.