Practical Magic: Voice in Character Creation

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

You’ve done it. Developed a writing voice distinctly your own. Readers can clearly hear YOU in your articles, essays, and poems. Congrats!

But what about your fiction? If you’re like me, the trick of bringing that voice to fiction, and writing believable characters—with their own voices—is not so clear. In my first article on voice, Solving the Riddle of Voice, I compare overlaying your voice and creating believable characters to work as a kind of alchemy. To understand this, let’s first look at the types of voice we’re discussing.

Voice, in general, can be thought of as the way a story is told. Its shadings and emphasis, its accessibility or complexity. By now, you know that your writer’s voice is simply that: you. An accumulation and distillation of your topics, word choice, word order, sentence structure and rhythm.

A character’s voice is the same, only from a fictional person whose life and backstory you’ve created. This voice is presented in our works in two parts: inner (internal dialogue) and outer (conversation with other characters).

Alchemy Unmasked

To understand how the writer’s voice overlays the voice of the character, picture Atlas supporting the world. The writer’s voice is present, providing the very real scaffolding holding the character up. Her voice shows in the choice of the novel’s genre, its story structure and ambiance. The characters’ voices show in their conversation tics, reactions to the novel’s stressors and what they do and don’t say.

Just as the writer’s voice is tinted by life experiences and her own predilections, so too is the character’s voice. Rachel Caine, author of the Stillhouse Lake series and many others, discussed this dynamic in an impromptu conversation/interview we shared recently via Twitter:

BJP: I do like your writing voice and how it carries across the genres you write. […] Do you have any ideas on [voice and character creation], if I may ask?

RC: […]  As far as voice and character creation … I really think the past of the character forms the inner voice (if not the outer). Family history, what they’ve been through in their life … Claire (in my Morganville YA novels) grew up a shy girl with a stubborn streak, so it took several books for her to shake the innate desire to Just Get Along. Zara (in the Honors series I co-write with Ann Aguirre) is funny but dark; she had childhood trauma and a take-no-shit attitude ever since, so her voice is confrontational most of the time. Gwen’s [main character in the Stillhouse Lake series] is paranoid, because of her experience(s) with Melvin and stalking.

[…] I try to make them all sound different based on how their past experiences have shaped them … but at the same time, undeniably, they all sound a bit like me, too.

BJP: […] In what ways do you think “they all sound a bit like” you?

RC: Hmmm, I think they have to sound a bit like me simply because I have a (sometimes unconscious) style that I can’t necessarily put aside. The only book where I’ve been fully able to do that (maybe?) is Prince of Shadows, because I was very consciously trying to mirror a Shakespearean style and form. But I think an author’s “voice” is something that people do follow, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing?

BJP: I agree with you that having a voice is not a bad thing. I certainly follow writers to hear that voice again and again. It’s what I’m attracted to as much as the story itself and why I buy their works. […]  [W]hat do you think your writing voice is and how would you describe it?

RC: My writing voice … wow, that’s hard to define from my end. In a word, I suppose: involving. That’s what I most strive to do is involve a reader in the journey of the characters in a way that feels organic, as if the reader has joined a group as an invisible companion, rather than having a story told to them at a remove. I, as an author, should disappear in favor of the characters, of course; that’s what makes a book truly immersive. And I suppose that being a multi-genre and multi-category writer means being a bit of a chameleon in that voice and pacing has to also conform to the standards of each genre and category. It’s funny, I recently had a discussion with a new author about “branding,” and what I told her was that unless her series was a monster smash hit, her brand is not going to be one series, but herself. It all aggregates up into a feeling people have about an author’s work, which equates to a brand. And voice certainly has to be a big part of that.

Magic = Practice

Mastering the ability to “disappear in favor of the characters” as Caine describes, lies in the work of writing. There is no shortcut, no magic, save writing and creating character after character until they seemingly breathe and live independent of us, their creators. While I can’t eliminate the work, I can point the way to articles and books which can help in our character writing apprenticeship:

All of the pieces are here; the only thing left is for us to do the work.

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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