Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why Voice is Like a Piece of Very, Very Good Cake!

A few years ago, one of my best friends got married and, instead of a traditional cake, they served a Mille Crêpe cake which is a cake made of 20 crepes with the MOST delicious frosting between them.
As I started to work on this post, I thought of that cake (and no, not just because I’m hungry, but it WAS a seriously amazing cake). I thought of that cake because for me, those layers are similar to the creation of voice in a novel.
Seriously. Bear with me.

As a reader, I usually read - not for action or explosions or even, if I’m being totally honest, plot. Instead I read because the character telling the story fascinates me in some way and I need to get to know everything about them.

This is an amorphous kind of thing. There are many best-sellers that end up on my “did not finish” list because I just don’t connect with the voice. So I understand agents and editors when they reject based on that alone (although I certainly grumble about those rejections as much as anyone).
As a writer, my outwardly haphazard process of pantsting means that I can start drafting with a concept (but without a plot) so long as I have the VOICE. For me, plot is the reward for hard work. But the voice is either there or it isn’t. Without voice, I have nothing.

Voice is the thing that comes deep in the night when your character starts whispering things to you – I’m assuming this happen to everyone? And then, for me, it develops with each new thing I learn about my characters.

What is their economic background? Their relationship with their parents? Do they have siblings? What is their ethnicity? Their sexual / gender orientation? What are their hobbies? Their hopes? Their fears? Every single one of those determines a character’s voice.

For instance, consider this factual and rather bland sentence:  

I watched the sun set and then turned and went back to the house.

You really don’t get a feel for who is saying this, right?

How about:

I couldn’t believe the colors I saw when the sun set. Where I came from, it didn’t matter that we had four suns, the rays were all dismal shades of grey. As I turned to go back to the house, I thought of my friend and wished that I could share this with him.


I couldn’t believe that we had to wait for the freaking sun to set. I could feel my blood pressure rising as I paced back and forth on the beach, in limbo until the waves opened and swallowed the sun, freeing us to high-tail it back to the house.

Each of those are distinctly different and yet tell the same story.

So, assuming that you don’t have a muse who talks to you in your sleep, where can you turn to refine your character’s voice?

First, although this is the one I find the most difficult: pay attention to the speech patterns of the real people in your life. What are their quirks? Their verbal tics. Repeated words. Sentence length. Do they swear? Do they describe things in lush detail? How can those be revised to suit your character?

Do you write to music? Sometimes a simple change of song or musical genre can change a character’s voice.

When all else fails, READ. I usually have one or more books that are touchstones for each of my projects. If I ever feel like I’m losing my way in terms of voice, I can return to these books, not because the voice is necessarily the same at my character’s, but because that book will return me to the mood I need to be in and remind me of the cadence of my own character’s voice.

Happy Writing!

- Helene Dunbar

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