You vs. Your Characters
What is voice? There’s a whole post about from last week, but this week I want to get more specific because there’s actually two parts voice plays in your writing. As a writer, you have a voice that’s hopefully unique to you, but also, each of your characters should have their own voices.
When I think of a unique character, one of the first books that comes to mind is Sutter Keely from The Spectacular Now. I really enjoyed this book, and the thing that made it so interesting was the voice of Sutter. The story in itself isn’t uncommon—high school boy who is the life of the party meets an unpopular girl and falls for her while realizing he doesn’t want to leave high school behind. But what makes the book so good is Sutter himself. This is also true of Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars.
Here’s an excerpt from The Spectacular Now:
Anyway, I have this sweet February morning stretching out in front of me, and I’m like, Who needs algebra? So what if I’m supposed to be trying to boost the old grades up before I graduate in May? I’m not one of these kids who’s had their college plans set in stone since they were about five. I don’t even know when the application deadlines are. Besides, it’s not like my education is some kind of priority with my parents. They quit keeping track of my future when they divorced, and that was back in the Precambrian Era. The way I figure it, the community college will always take me. And who says I need college anyway? What’s the point?
When you read it, you get the immediate sense that this kid is not concerned with his future. He wants to have fun and his attitude shows it.
There are, unfortunately, also prime examples of where the author fails to create distinguishable voices for the characters. As much as I loved the Divergent trilogy, I did not like the switching of first person narrative in the last book, Allegiant. The voice of Tris and the voice of Four were too similar, and I had to go back to the beginning of the chapter or wait for a name to be said to remember whose head I was in. Not a good thing. And this is why alternating first person POV usually doesn’t work well. The same thing happened in the second book of the Matched trilogy, Crossed. It feels like the same character.
I once read somewhere that a good way to test your character’s voice is to have them describe a room. Not how you see it as the writer, but how the character would see it. Real life example. When I’m in a room with my brother, who owns his own carpentry company, the first thing he notices is the crown molding, the finishing around the door, the wainscoting. I might see that, but I’m much more likely to notice the decorations and the color scheme. His description would be very utilitarian: a square, 14’ by 14’ room with recessed lighting and crown molding. Whereas I would say: a blue grey room with taupe trim and large framed photos on the wall. We’re different people with different interests, therefore we notice different things.
What is the first thing your character sees when he or she walks into a room? What is important in that room? Is it the people or the number of people? Is it the food or the mirrors or the comfy chair because she’s tired?
Here’s a good exercise. Pick a room. How would a character like Elle Woods describe that room versus Crocodile Dundee? It should be abundantly obvious which description belongs to which character. Characters should be distinctive from each other.
Next week: Bring Out Your Voice