When we talk about “great voice” we’re not talking about Seal, Bono, and Meat Loaf (you know, it’s true), we’re talking about the way an author describes a scene, paints a description, or the life he or she instills into a character’s words. The literary world is full of great voices. Kurt Vonnegut, Tolkien, Faulkner, Twain, J.K. Rowling, and more recently George R.R. Martin, whose voice resonates in almost every single episode of the television adaptation of “Game of Thrones”. It’s a hell of an accomplishment when the voices you’ve created translate just as well to screen as they do on the page.
And, of course, agents and editors in the industry profess constantly that that they’re always looking for the next great voice, so naturally everyone wants to know how to BE that voice. Well, it isn’t easy. If you’re like me, you’ve always thought, “I’ll tell a great story and then hone the voice.” That’s not a bad technique, but remarkably few people ever actually refine their voice during the editing stage. Perhaps in order to tap into the true voice-developing process, we need to tap into something a little more cerebral and alter the way we perceive the world and the voices around us. There are tons of great voices out there, but just how do we make them our own? In this article, I just wanted to throw a few ideas at you that have helped me harness the power of my voice.
1. Read Good Voices! This one is numero uno for a reason. I don’t think it’s possible to develop a good voice unless you read the masters. Any of the authors I mentioned above will do but you also need to explore a little bit on your own. If you’re writing suspense, maybe Tolkien isn’t the right voice for you. Research the great writers of your genre and become a master of their voice. Read until you practically feel like you could speak on behalf of one of their characters. Once you realize that voice is a malleable thing that can be bent and twisted to suit your needs, you’ll find a way to leave your own mark on prose and dialogue and make your voice your own. Either that, or you’ll end up babbling like an idiot on the page. Either way works, really.
2. Experiment! The next key to crafting character is not to constrained by the common character types that we literary folk take for granted. Experiment! If you’re a tad crazy (and, let’s face it, we all are) then use your characters as an outlet for that mild psychosis. If you’re OCD or if you know someone who is OCD (I do and she knows who she is), try to capture the essence of that in one of your characters. It can be difficult to juggle all these qualities and experiment, so the best strategy is to jot down a few ideas of how a character would speak and try running them by some friends or colleagues.
What’s important is that your voice should have personality. I’ve seen several bloggers talk about Stephen Colbert when it comes to literary voice and I could not agree more. Stephen Colbert’s TV persona on The Colbert Report is a totally unique character that lives and breathes that persona to hilarious ends. The “Colbert Character” is never off so long as he is in existence (in other words, on camera) and even spontaneously fields and responds to questions in exact accordance to his character’s personality and wit, which I believe is the key to that show’s longevity. Crafting a great character is all about commitment and consistency, wherein that character never ceases to be who or what it is.
3. Play Music While You Write and Focus on Movie Dialogue! In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creative Writing, there is a whole page devoted to “finding your voice” and, well, it gets a little trippy hippie for my taste. “Activate odors that move your spirit. Try cinnamon, pine, or vanilla.” Yeah, whatever. I’m pretty sure that Tyrion Lannister was not created from George R. R. Martin sitting around smelling copious amounts of “pine”. Another advice pointer says “Try writing in the dark”. Well, on my income, I basically do every single night and it hasn’t really helped my “voice” so far as I can tell. One gem of voice-finding advice even recommends “finger painting”. FINGER PAINTING. Folks, if you require hours of finger painting in order to find your voice, professional writing is probably not the career path for you unless you’re only four years old.
If you’re four years old, finger painting, and also reading this website, well, kudos to you, Kid. You’re a rockstar.
However, I have to admit that listening to rap by the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye has helped me hone my voice. Why? Because Kanye and HOVA are masters of wordplay and references that convey their ideas. I know 99% of you are probably going to roll your eyes or just ignore me entirely but check out the lyrics to a song that they did together called “Ni**as in Paris” (if you’re wondering what the n-word is…uh…it’s “ninjas”). I know tons of people don’t appreciate rap and I’m no rap connoisseur, believe me, but I do enjoy this song and the subtle jokes in it are pretty spectacular. The point is not that your writing should imitate this, it’s just that you never know where the creative juices might come from and Kanye and Jay-Z sometimes get me going with their clever wordplay. http://www.metrolyrics.com/niggas-in-paris-lyrics-jayz.html (whoops…it’s not ninjas!)
Movies might be more accessible to you. There is a wealth of fantastic movie characters with unique voices that you can readily absorb. Forrest Gump comes to mind. Ripley from the Alien films is a wonderful character not because of her personal voice but because of her gender in an atypical setting. The Joker from The Dark Knight. Robert Downey Jr.’s roles in Tropic Thunder and Iron Man are both priceless. A fair number of people would also probably bring up Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo movies and books.
But my go to example right now is Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates franchise. Jack Sparrow is another great character who exudes all the qualities that make one memorable. He is consistent, yet unpredictable. He behaves the way no other human being behaves and yet always maintains a certain gravitas and swagger that is relatable. You believe that he is a pirate despite the fact that every other pirate in the franchise is a hodgepodge of pirate clichés. And, above all, when he is speaking, no matter your feelings on the movie as a whole, you’re listening.
4. Don’t Obsess Over Yourself! This has probably been about my greatest weakness as a voice-maker. I have found that too many of my characters speak the way I do, which isn’t necessarily enough to break a book, but it does keep many of the characters from being as interesting as they might otherwise be. What’s the best way to keep your characters from sounding like you? See the other examples. Read other voices and listen to other voices and carry those voices with you into the writing process. If it helps, imagine that character sitting next to you and stop to ask him or her from time to time how a line of dialogue should really sound. And if that character replies, please get some rest, because you’ve probably been awake for too long.
5. Watch Audio Clips Online and Listen to Drunk People! If you’re looking for dialect help in order to tap into a character’s voice, do a little sleuthing on YouTube or Google. You might be surprised by how many help videos there are concerning regional dialects. I spent a weekend in Pikeville, Kentucky in high school studying Appalachian dialects, for instance, and I was floored by the variations in pronunciation and the wealth of idioms that I never knew existed. Take this decent example of southern dialects that I found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk4WrTuDS5s. It’s not terrible exhaustive but he does point you in the right direction. Meanwhile, this site, which also took me all of five seconds to find, has a nice list of southern idioms: http://www.shaggybevo.com/board/showthread.php/36017-Old-southern-idioms These details add unimaginable life to your character and can paint a character with a charm beyond your abilities. What I love about southern idioms is that they can also be tweaked to fit in fantasy novels just fine. If you’ve read Game of Thrones, it would not be surprising to me to discover that some of Robert Baratheon’s turn of phrases originated south of Kentucky.
Finally, what I like to do is just carry around a notepad and make notes of interesting things I hear people say. Nowhere is this more fun to do, though, than at parties where drunk people are making the rounds. Drunk people do more gymnastics with the English language than anyone else I know. It’s like they’ve taken proper speech and flushed it down the commode along with so much excess Jagermeister. I also like taking notepads to bars, where you’re more likely to encounter a healthy cultural and socioeconomic mix of drunk people. Pro Tip: Um, try not to let them see that you’re writing down what they say. Either they’ll get violent, or it will really screw with their heads. You can pretend to be an Observer from Fringe but chances are they won’t be familiar with the show and won’t appreciate the reference.