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Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding Your Voice

No, I don’t really mean your voice. I mean the voice of your novel. You’ve heard it all over the blogosphere: you’ve got to have an authentic voice, especially when writing for the teen market (which is huge right now. Did you see the announcement that Borders is making a teen section in their bookstores? Woot!).

So how does one do this?

Well, um, uh…

You’ve got to find the voice of the narrating character. Become them. Be one. This sounds deep, but it’s not, trust me.

Some people fill out character sheets. These are a good way to have all the pertinent information in one place. It’s a good start for finding the character’s voice, but it’s not really gonna get you there.


Well, take me for example. I bet you could name a lot of things about me. Hair color, eye color, height, weight (to a reasonable degree), where I work, how many kids I have, my favorite foods, color, music, things to do, birthday, etc. Heck, all you have to do is read my profile on blogger, Facebook or Myspace. Read a blog post or two, I reveal A LOT about myself. You could easily complete a character sheet on me.

Does that mean you know me?

Could you write a story with me as the narrator? If you read my blog, I bet you could. My voice is in every post. The way I talk and the way I write are pretty much the same.

And that’s where you find your character’s voice. In the writing. But I don’t mean the actual writing.

Yeah, you’re lost. Give me a second, I’ll bring you back.

I don’t think you can just sit down and start writing with an authentic voice. It usually takes me a few pages (meaning like, 50, sometimes more) to really “find” the character’s voice. Then I’ve got it. Then I just have to go back and fix those 50 pages.

So those first 50 pages don’t count as “actual writing”. It's exploratory writing, the writing you do to find the voice of the character. Once you’ve done that, you should be able to conduct a character interview. Ask your character questions, being sure to be yourself. Answer them, making sure to BE YOUR CHARACTER. You should know them so well, you know how they would sit for the interview. What they would do with their eyes, mouth, hair, hands, etc. while they’re talking.

Only then, do you really know your characters enough to write. And write for real this time. Only then will you be able to write with an authentic voice—one that is not your own, but that of your narrating character.

Try it! I conducted an interview with one of my main characters here. Do it, post it on your blog, and then be sure to let us know about it by leaving the link in the comments.

What do you think? Do you think you need exploratory writing time to find your character’s voice? How long does that usually take you? What steps do you take to find their voice?

Elana Johnson writes science fiction and fantasy for young adults. Besides a serious addiction to the Internet, she can never get enough reality TV, Dove dark or reasons to laugh. Click here to visit her blog.


Eileen Astels Watson said...

Getting in my POV characters' heads is the only way that works for me. SOme are quirky, some funny, some extremely serious, others obnoxious. That seems to come out in the narration as well as their dialogue if I stay inside their heads for the duration of the scene and sequence.

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post! I fill out the character sheets and go from there. Because I plot out the story before I begin, the character have had a chance to show me who they are, so once I start writing, they're there with me.

Lynnette Labelle

Cali MacKay said...

Great post. I find that most of my characters tend to find their voice pretty quick, but there's always one or two that change part way through, so that I'm forced to go back and make corrections. Voice is the one thing I love writing, and find that more than anything else it's what brings a book to life.

M. Dunham said...

I absolutely agree. Finding your character's voices isn't immediate. I've heard the interview technique. Some others I enjoy are "Stick your character into a really bad situation (one-time bad situation not in the book) and write out the scene.

Alternatively, I ask my characters about an important topic like justice, duty, love, and have them write an essay that reflects back on their personal life to show examples. I learn so much then. :)

Stephanie McGee said...

This is a really great post. I'm in the process of reading Noah Lukeman's The Plot Thickens and the first two chapters are nothing but interrogation questions to apply to your characters. It's really great. And I'm sure it's helpful. (I just haven't gotten back to the writing phase yet.)

Novice Writer Anonymous

Henya said...

Heck, it took me more than 50 pages to get to know my character. She kept changing on me...so, go figure. Love it that I'm not the only one who engages in voice battle.

Does it mean, though, that in order to write teenagerhood I need to spend time with them? Yuck. They are so difficult.

Alicia Evans said...

Man Elana, I just wrote a blog post the other day about the main character feeling 'flat' to me...and ways to kind of...give her some life. Great timing!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I never felt the whole 'character sheet' thing was a helpful way for me to start, so it's nice to hear of other people letting it take form in 50 pages or so. At least I don't feel those 50 pages are a waste of time! :)

Did character interviews of my two mains a few months back for a writing group exercise. We started with a handful of basic questions every author answered in the character's voice/internal narrative, and then asked individual questions in the comments section. My results are here and here, since you invited us to link :)

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I don't do this enough, but when I do, it really helps. A writer friend of mine takes those silly meme's that go around Facebook and answers them with her characters. It's a great way to learn things you might not otherwise think to ask!

Jessica Shope said...

I like to do some pre-writing before hand, just to form the rough edges of my characters. I write best in first-person, though, so finding the voice for my main character isn't usually too hard. It's the secondary characters that sometimes give me some trouble!

- Jane Opal

Tara McClendon said...

I make my characters wait until they start stalking me. When I can hear their voices while I'm trying to focus on something else, I know it's time to sit down and write them.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! It's easy to get lost in the "Voice? What Voice?" mire.

Clementine said...

Elana, this is going to sound so corny, but it reminds me of my childhood days playing Barbie Dolls. When I'm writing, I become that Barbie...that character going through whatever it is that comes next. Maybe that's why I love this job so much!

Tess said...

Some of my characters come to me right away ... others take their time. I find word choice plays a lot into my search for voice. What would that character say? How would they say it? Like you said, it should be reflective. Good thoughts here.

Betsy Ashton said...

I love this post. I completely agree that you have to get into your main character's head to find your voice. I write character-driven women's fiction, so I'm not always sure where the character will take me. I use a blueprint to outline the primary characters, the secondary characters, the bad guys, etc. I need to be able to look in a single place for names and description.

And since I am writing a series of novels about the same sets of characters, I have to be able to age them appropriately, remember the backstory from book one, and introduce then kill off tertiary characters.

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent discussion guys! Getting inside the MC is crucial. Character sheets are good. Writing is good. Letting them talk to you is good. Talking back to them is good. Facebook quizzes (I can't believe I'm going to say this) are good. Choosing the right words is good. Barbies are good. :)

All of it! Thanks for sharing!

Bethany Wiggins said...

I wish I could capture your voice, Elana, for one of my Mc's. I laugh at almost everything you write. You're the best.

When I start a book, I usually hear The Voice in my head before I even begin writing. As I write it strengthens, but it almost feels as if the MC has picked me rather than the other way around.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I don't fill out character sheets which don't help me at all with getting into a character's head. Knowing their eye color or what food they like doesn't do that for me.

When I start writing I already have the character's voice. I don't know why or how. That's the easy part for me. I can hear, see and feel them.

Anna C. Morrison said...

I love your interview with Jag! That was terrific. Yes, I have done this, not to the extent to where my character complained about me, or wanted me to do something different, but...well, maybe that did happen. Just not as aggressively as yours did. My characters are more subtle with me, but they get their way in the end.

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