Writing Excuses 13.13: Character Voice
Key points: Voice, mechanical, aesthetic, and personal. How much character voice expresses itself depends on the project. Often in 1st and 3rd person, the narrative is partial voice, while the dialogue is full voice. Pay attention to how they curse or praise. Backstory or background is important to find out what the character might do that is interesting, unique, fun, specific, a distinctive voice. Vocabulary and word choice. Some narrators have a distinctive voice, too. Set your rules for that! Separate what the narrator tells you because you need to know it, and what the narrator hides to let the story unfold. For a spunky sarcastic teen narrator in YA, make it particular, personalized. Voice can make description and infodumps tolerable, even enjoyable. Beware the brilliant asshole, who has failed the area of intention, where the author’s needs and the character’s needs intersect. Also, pay attention to emphasis, bringing up the voice when you want the reader to pay attention to how the character is feeling or an important plot point.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Character Voice.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Batman.
[Brandon] I was about to say none of us can compete with Mary, but that was pretty good.
[Howard] I had to dig deep and find out if the walking pneumonia…
[Howard] Still had some damage lurking down there in my…
[Brandon] So, we have covered some character voice aspects before. In fact, Mary was going to catch you up-to-date on that.
[Mary] Right. So if you go listen to Season 12, we have an entire episode where we are talking about character voice and the differences between the author voice and character voice and narrative voice. We break it down into basically three types. There’s mechanical, which is things like first-person/2nd person. There’s the aesthetic, which is what voice kind of sounds like. And then there’s the personal voice, which is the stuff that the writer themselves brings to the table based on their lived experience.
[Brandon] We spent a lot of time on personal voice in that episode. We want to talk about aesthetic voice here. What the characters specifically sound like, their voices, because this is the year where we are talking a lot about character, and the characters’ voices are going to be one of the main ways that you characterize them.
[Mary] So, there’s a couple of different things that I think you should be aware of as we are moving through this. That’s that the amount that your character voice expresses itself on the page is going to vary, project by project. So you’re going to have to kind of tweak this depending on what you have. So there’s the thing where you really only hear the character voice when they are speaking. The narrator is fairly neutral. Then there’s tight third person or first-person, where you have the character voice both with their dialogue and in the narration. Then there’s other things where that voice is going to shift from chapter to chapter. There’s a lot of different variations on this.
[Brandon] When I’ve felt… At least my perspective is a lot of people who do even a first or third person narrative, when you’re in narrative itself as opposed to dialogue, when you’re in the paragraph by paragraph, that the character voice is coloring that, but it is not completely in voice. It’s like you do a half version of the character’s voice in descriptions. Then when they’re in dialogue, you go full into their voice. I think that’s just kind of a thing mechanically we do a lot of the times.
[Mary] It’s funny that… It’s one of those things that I actually wind up replicating a lot when I am doing audiobooks. Because the way we speak when we are kind of talking to ourselves versus when we are addressing someone else is different. That’s something that I think happens on the page to a certain degree. I can’t quite do it here because… For those of you watching the video feed, our microphones are on our foreheads with…
[Howard] You can’t lean into the mic.
[Mary] I can’t lean into the mic. But the way I would do it on the page would be something like, “She stared at the walls, wondering what she was going to do. Hey! What am I going to do?” It’s a little bit of a pitch, but it also makes… Means bringing the character, the specific attributes of the aesthetic voice more to the forefront, the rhythms and the pacings and word choices, and the sentence structures that the character will employ.
[Brandon] Let’s just break into this and try to, I guess, dig into it…
[Howard] I have a couple of shortcuts.
[Howard] One of them is, how does this character curse?
[Mary] Oh, yeah. Uh-huh.
[Howard] Okay? I am not allowed to have my characters express their distaste all in the same way. Because then they all become the same person. How does this person praise someone? That’s actually an easy example for me to list. In Schlock Mercenary, both Capt. Tagon and his dad, when someone has done something well, they will say, “Outstanding.” Because that’s kind of the military voice. When the doctor is in a position where she would say outstanding, she will say, “Oh. Nice.” Or maybe, “Excellent.” Depending on the sort of thing that it is. I have a rule. She will never say outstanding unless, for some reason, she’s parroting someone else’s dialogue or that’s a word that fits in some other way. I find that that sort of rule with the three syllable, four syllable words, you can come up pretty quickly with a list of things that are unique to these characters, that the other characters just wouldn’t use that word.
[Brandon] I’m doing a book series right now where the main character is from Iona, Idaho, which is a small Mormon town in southern Idaho. Her thing is Mormon curses.
[Mary] I love Mormon curses so much.
[Brandon] If you are not from…
[Dan] So fetching much.
[Brandon] The area that… Like fetch got popular because it was like in that movie or something like that. But there are so many of them. Scrud is a big one. People use scrud and oh my heck. People… Like it’s just natural. My kids all say it. If they’re surprised, they say, “Oh, my heck.” It’s like… It’s this thing. It’s just normal, I’ve grown up with it. But if you go outside of Utah, Idaho, little bubble, and you say that, people are like, “Did you just say, ‘Oh, my heck?'”
[Mary] I’m like… Because I don’t say, “Oh, my heck.” That’s fascinating.
[Howard] Well, you know what the tough kids in Utah say? Oh, my hell.
[They do, they do.]
[That’s so cute.]
[Howard] I know it is.
[Mary] See, I was sitting here going… This gives a whole new meaning to my novels… My Jane Austen novels, where someone says, “What a fetching hat.”
[Brandon] But I can tell you, this character voice has been a very natural one for me to write, and very interesting and very different and very distinctive. But… It’s something very simple. It doesn’t like intrude a lot. You drop one of these every chapter or two, and it’s a reminder, oh, this character’s from a specific rural community, and they speak in a specific way, without going into like a huge dialect and lots of apostrophes and things like this. It’s been great. It’s been a real delight to do. I’m doing the book in first person, so I can drop them in and things like that. People can make fun of them. It’s just a delight. I actually think I put some of the chapters up on the Patreon under the rayon hat for people. So, a little plug for our Patreon there. These sorts of things are so much fun. In the previous years, I did a character who was just bad at metaphors. These are both amusing ones, right? Because I’m writing these kind of action adventure fun books. So he would just make terrible terrible terrible metaphors all the time.
[Mary] People loved those.
[Brandon] This sort of thing that you can put textually, I find is a lot more powerful. Again, you don’t have to do just amusing ones. To give your characters a distinctive voice, a distinctive way of seeing the world, to not just do the same old same old. The one thing that really bugs me is like the smart person who doesn’t use contractions. Which I’m fine with, but it’s been done so much. And I know a lot of smart people, and they use more contractions, because they want to speak faster and get more ideas across. So it’s one of these things that we do in fiction that isn’t that realistic. Plus, it’s been overdone. I try to tell people, search for what this character does themselves that’s interesting, not just kind of parroting back what you’ve seen in fiction before.
[Mary] I think one of the other things… What this character does that is specific, that you mentioned when you were talking about the small town that your character is from, is that a lot of times when we’re trying to come up with a character voice, we’re like, “Oo, what would be an interesting voice? What would be cool quirks?” We don’t think about where it comes from. Like, this is why people will tell you to figure out your character’s back story is, and what their history is, and what their family is. It’s not so you can fill out a spreadsheet. It so that when you are writing voice, you have thought about what their background is.
[Brandon] We will do an entire episode on character back stories.
[Dan] Character back stories! The book that I’m writing right now, I’ve got a teenage girl, who I decided on a whim, essentially, that she was going to be very good at math and that her… Her good subject would be math and her bad subject would be English. Just to give some texture to all the school scenes. I realized as I was writing that, that meant that her word choice would be much different than my typical character word choice. So that has forced me to use different words, to use a whole different vocabulary, which has helped define her character much more clearly as well.
[Mary] So, I… This is a sentence I’m about to just really enjoy saying. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of astronauts recently.
[Howard] That’s the Mary voice.
[Mary] You can see me flip my hair. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of astronauts.
[Brandon] Before or after you were on Sesame Street?
[Mary] That was after Sesame Street.
[Mary] Actually, if you want to impress an astronaut, you tell them you were on Sesame Street. It’s kind of fun. Anyway, the point being we were having a conversation about staying up too late at night and getting on the Internet. He said, “Yeah, that’s a… I really just got sucked down the gravity well.” I’m like, “Hah!” Because I say… And I said, “That is such astronaut jargon.” Out loud, actually, to him. Because I would say that I fell down the rabbit hole. He’s like, “That’s so literary.” It’s that kind of thing. What your character gets excited about, and the jargon that they use in their day-to-day life is going to be really different.
[Dan] Word choice like that is so powerful and so much more powerful, I think, than trying to add an accent. Which is, I think, the wrong way in most cases to go about character voice. I’m reading a book right now in my writing group, so it isn’t even published yet. The author is Wendy Tolliver. It is a middle grade about a girl in Kentucky, and at one point used the word filling station instead of gas station. Just that one word choice was so perfect. For the scene, and for the character, and for the place. That… Figuring out those little words, I think, can add so much.
[Brandon] Let’s break for our book of the week, which, Dan, you’re going to tell us about.
[Dan] Yes. Okay. So our book of the week is Defy the Stars by Claudia Grey. It is a space opera about a girl who is a fighter pilot who ends up with an android that she… The two of them are going around trying to save the universe, basically. What’s fascinating about it, and the reason I wanted to do it this week, is that every other chapter is from one of their points of view. So you get the girl and the android, and the girl and the android. So not only do you have some beautiful kind of dramatic irony is each of them describes the other one in a very particular way, but you also get a fantastic difference between their voices. This very kind of hotheaded emotional girl, and then the kind of almost but not quite unemotional android who’s coming from his own very different background and his very different mind set. She does a fantastic job with character voice in this.
[Brandon] Excellent. That’s Defy the Stars?
[Dan] Defy the Stars.
[Brandon] Has a really awesome cover.
[Dan] It does.
[Brandon] I really like the cover. I haven’t read the book. But cover…
[Dan] It’s a great book. Claudia is one of my favorite YA authors, and this one is wonderful.
[Mary] Ah, yes. She’s splendid.
[Brandon] So let me ask you this. One of the things I’ve noticed that’s an interesting thing to do in fiction is have a really distinctive voice for a narrator. You see this a lot in omniscient, but sometimes you see it in books where somebody is… There’s an active storyteller, telling the story. Then the characters all have their own distinctive voices. You do a little bit of this, Howard, in Schlock Mercenary. Any tips? What do you gain by doing that? How do you characterize through the lens when there’s somebody in between you and the story in some ways?
[Howard] Well, there has to be some sort of rule set for you. For some of the Schlock Mercenary books, I’ve decided that I’m not going to allow the narrator to deliberately tell a joke. The narrator is allowed to word things in ways that might be funny, and there can be irony in the way things are worded, but the narrator is not going to make a pun. The narrator is not going to deliver a reveal as a punchline, deliberately. The panels may have it is a punchline. But the narrator is the one who’s telling the joke. Making that decision means that the narrator actually gets funnier in one sentence, because it’s drier, it’s more descriptive. So when there’s a reveal that is a punchline, if there’s narration just before or on it, you then have the juxtaposition between incredibly dry and incredibly traumatic. I didn’t realize that that was going to happen when I made the decision. But when I saw it, I thought, “Oh, that’s cool.”
[Brandon] I’m going to do that again. Yeah.
[Howard] So, yeah, I start with a rule set. I also try to make sure that if the narrator is omniscient, and in Schlock Mercenary, the narrator is omniscient, there is a clear distinction between what the narrator is telling you because you really need to know it for the story, and what the narrator is not telling you because we want the story to unfold. The narrator knows exactly what star system we’re in. The narrator knows exactly why this thing exploded. He’s going to tell you that we’re in this star system, but then you’re going to watch the explosion and the narrator’s not going to reveal any more information. That… I mean, that sounds like a no-brainer, but you have to have that rule. What is the narrator able to reveal, and what is the narrator allowed to hide? It sounds like a no-brainer because when you read comics, you so rarely run up against a situation where you feel like, “Oh. The narrator shouldn’t have told me that. I should have watched that happen.” One of the best examples of narrators breaking rules is the Deadpool comics. Where Deadpool argues with his narrator, breaking the fourth wall. It’s funny for that reason. But it doesn’t work anywhere else because it’s such a signature style. Sorry, that was long.
[Brandon] No, that’s great. That was exactly what we needed. Although, I’ve been thinking about something else, and I want to actually throw this one at Dan. So, a lot of YA fiction uses a very similar voice. The voice is spunky sarcastic teen who would not necessarily say these things out loud, but in narrative, is cracking jokes every other paragraph. Can this still be done in an original way? I mean, why is it so common? What is it about that voice?
[Mary] Because that is [wide] teenage experience.
[Dan] Yes. That is exactly why it’s so common. It’s because that is how a lot of teenagers either are or aspired to be or think of themselves. I am the smart one who is also the funny one. So doing a narrator that way makes it so you like that narrator more, because you either identify with them or you want to be friends with them. Which makes this whole thing sounds very mercenary, but it is kind of a trick to basically just put in and say this will smooth the transition between your brain and the narrator’s brain. Because you’re kind of speaking the same language. I think the… It does feel overdone. Where it works best is where that voice becomes very particular. I think this is one of the truisms of writing that we talk about a lot is that the more personalized you can make something, the truer it will feel and the more accessible it will become. So if it’s just a generically snarky narrator, then okay, I’ve read plenty of generically snarky narrators. But if it is snarky in a very particular way or in a very particular style, then that will set it apart from the rest, and you’ll say, “Oh, this is still the texture that I like, but I’ve never read this voice before.”
[Brandon] Right. I think part of the reason for this also is, it just is eminently readable. If you’re chuckling… Like that’s… that’s… This is what voice can do for you. If you’re chuckling while you read a description or feeling some other emotion while you read the description that would in some books either boring dry stuff you would want to skip past, but here you lap it up. That’s what voice, character voice in specific, can-do, is that it can let your description, it can let your action beats also be characterization.
[Mary] I… I also suspect to a certain degree that one of the things that happens is because our own internal voice is all of the stuff that we don’t say out loud. So… Like if you have a thought about…
[Howard] Wait, what?
[Brandon] So you think things you don’t say?
[Mary] You have a point. Okay. Everyone except Howard. No, but it’s… So, I think that a lot of times the… The oh, God… The oh, right… Is a running monologue that we have in our heads.
[Howard] It’s a universality.
[Mary] Yes. Even as adults. Whereas the things that you say out loud, the compliments and things like that, those have been… Those have been cleaned up and tailored and are not necessarily…
[Howard] [garbled Another] universality. And I think it’s the reason YA plays so well with this snarky voice is the five minutes later sentiment of “Oh, that’s what I should’ve said.”
[Mary] I should have said. Yes.
[Howard] That’s what I should have said. I was thinking about that and realized I don’t have that… I don’t have that happen to me as much because I spend more time listening and thinking, waiting for the really good ones. And I’ve had 50 years of practice. The things that “Oh, that’s what I should have said” are usually so terrible that I didn’t utter them.
[Dan] Okay. So a pitfall, since we’re talking about the snarky narrator. One specific branch of snarky narrator that has become, in my opinion, an overwhelming cliché in modern media, is the brilliant a-hole. Right? I… Which in many ways, is just the modern power fantasy, right? I can be as big a jerk as I want, but you still have to listen to me because I’m right. You can see this… It started with House, I guess, is really when it took off, but it’s everywhere now. So you need to be careful how snarky you are and what kind of snarky you are.
[Howard] See, a snarky narrator who’s… For instance, if we’re talking about YA, who thinks about the things in front of her in terms of the games she’s been playing, especially the games she doesn’t like, the snark will often be pop culture snark about stuff we are familiar with. Not necessarily making fun of the things that are in front of her, but making fun of other things.
[Mary] Show one of the things that I want to talk about with… Is to actually talk about some practical things. When we’re talking about snarky stuff, one of the things that you can look at is something called the area of intention. Or the… I learned about it from Jane Espenson as the joke area. This is what function it’s serving in the story. There are two reasons that a character is going to say something in voice. Well, I mean, just in general. One is the reason that you the author need them to say it. The other is the reason that the character needs to say it. Sometimes it’s that I want to try to be clever. One of the things that will happen when this snarky voice misfires is when your reason for putting it in is I want a joke here, and that is your only reason. The same thing happens when… You know in real life when someone is making a joke just to make a joke and it’s not funny. John Scalzi’s maxim, the failure mode of clever is asshole, will happen to your narrator by putting in things just to be funny without thinking about the rest of the area of intention. What function is it serving? So that’s one thing, is making sure that you think about the area of intention, what you are trying to accomplish on both levels, why you are trying to do it, and why the narrator is. The other thing is to look for these areas… The two kind of metrics that I use are looking at emphasis and ambiguity. That when you want it to be clear how a character feels about something, that that’s one of the places that you’re going to kind of increase the volume of their voice, by bringing out the snark, by bringing out… Or by bringing out their meekness or by bringing out whatever trait it is. If you want to really make it clear, if it’s… You could go, “Do they like Brussels sprouts or not? I’m not sure.” That’s a place where you’d want to dial up the narrator voice a little bit. Likewise, if you… If it is an important plot point, that’s a point where you’re going to want to add some emphasis to it. Where again, you’re going to want to dial up the volume of the narrator voice. Otherwise, you may want to actually keep it fairly neutral. I mean, most of the time when we are speaking, there is a lot of stuff in between our marker… Our individual marker bits that could actually belong in anyone’s mouth.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and call it there. Mary, you have our homework.
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is take a section of text that you have already written. Okay? So this is a default. Preferably something that you wrote in more-or-less neutral voice. I want you to rewrite that scene. I want you to rewrite it with three different characters. One of them is 80 years old. One of them is 12. And one of them is from a foreign country.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.