Finding Your Character’s Voice

Oftentimes people come up with a wonderful story idea, plot it out intricately, and then get to writing.  After awhile, though, they begin to realize that all of the characters sound the same.

An important step got skipped — character work.

Two prominent opinions abound in the writing community.  The first opinion stipulates that the plot is the driving force of the story.  If the plot is sound, everything else will fall into place.  Plot and pacing will not be sacrificed in service of characters.

The other opinion is the complete opposite.  Plot is irrelevant.  If the character is rounded, well-developed, and real, a plot can’t help but occur.  These stories meander along, but, assuredly, by the end of the book you know that character inside and out.

I fall somewhere in the middle.  No matter what story I’m writing, even the very plot-driven ones, I firmly believe every major character should have a distinct persona and voice.

But what is voice?  Voice is literally how the character sounds.  What is their dialect, their speech pattern, their cadence?  Are they humorous, monotone, sarcastic, succinct, verbose?  Is their dialogue generally very relaxed, or are they typically agitated?  Do they have a complex vocabulary or do they keep things short and sweet?

Unfortunately, these are things that you can’t really figure out on the fly, well, not without wasting a lot of time.  It’s so much more efficient to spend a few weeks figuring out who your characters are.  Delve deeply into their background.  Even if you don’t actually use 95% of what you develop, they will feel, and therefore sound, so much more tangible to both you and the reader.  For example, a character who grew up poor in LA is going to talk and sound very differently from a character who grew up isolated from society in rural Maine.  They will have completely unique life experiences, and, if thrust together, will not act and talk similarly when their true selves appear.

I’ve written characters that were underdeveloped and I struggled with them from start to finish.  If you don’t know your character, then you don’t have a solid understanding of how they will react in different situations.  Readers are typically an intellectual group.  They will sniff out a shortcut in a heartbeat.

I know it’s hard to slow down.  I know you want to write that book now.  But trust me when I tell you that by thoroughly exploring your characters and giving them the time that they deserve, you will write a better book.

By the time you’re done, your characters will feel like permanent members of your reality.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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What’s In a Name?

I’ve noticed that authors have a great deal of difficulty doing something rather necessary — naming characters.  Names have such power that this endeavor should never be taken lightly.  After all, the name an author assigns a character will likely outlast the author him or herself, especially if the piece catches on.  Can you imagine Hannibal Lecter  by any other name?  Or Hermoine Granger?

On a personal note, I have struggled with this venture as well.  Here are four strategies I’ve developed over the years that have always proven helpful.  This doesn’t have to be limited to naming literary characters, by the way.  Feel free to take advantage if looking to name a pet or child.

  1. Use Your Allusion
    Perhaps your character has something very much in common with another famous person or place.  For example, it’s rare to find a villain in popular culture named “Arthur.”  That name has become so synonymous with “good” and “noble” that the name alone can establish characterization.  “Paris” insinuates sophistication.  “Diana” connotes royalty.  Unfortunately, some previously established names are forever off-limits.  You’ll never get away with using “Einstein,” “Sherlock,” or “Beyonce.”
  2. With a Little Help From Your Friends
    Along the lines of the previous advice, look to your own circle of friends or social network for inspiration.  If you have a friend who is incredibly intelligent and you correlate that name with intellect, tack it onto your character.  The subconscious connection will round your character out and ground them to your mind’s reality.  Conversely, let’s say you have a friend of a friend who is a total jerk.  The name of that person alone may be all the push you need to set that character’s creative tone.  Of course, tread lightly with this strategy.  Friends will read perhaps too deeply into characters named after them.  What may have been a relatively simple decision by you could severely alter a relationship if they don’t care for their namesake.
  3. This Is Gibberish
    If writing science fiction or fantasy stories, nonsense words will likely prove very useful.  I remember a wonderful interview in which Neil Gaiman said “Coraline,” the name of his famous character, occurred simply due to a typo.  He meant to write “Caroline.”  This era has the distinct benefit of the internet, which provides countless “name generators” for every genre imaginable.  I also like to use the old school method of simply combining parts of words that describe the actual character.  Let’s say I have a science fiction character who is deceitful and murderous, yet also charming.  I may put together a name such as “Chare Itous.”  Be aware, though, that the more outlandish the name, the more likely you are to lose your reader.  Readers need names that standout and are easy to remember.  To this day, I can only recall a handful of the names from “The Lord Of the Rings.”
  4. The Randomness Of It All
    If you want to avoid friends and family making any kinds of associations, and if you desire for your characters to remain free of any preconceived notions as the byproduct of an allusion, then I suggest allowing fate to decide for you.  Put a phone book in front of you, close your eyes, open it, and point.  Use the first name of the person you’ve selected as your character’s first name.  Repeat this process for the last name.  By doing this, you will truly allow your writing to establish the characterization of your creations.  This method dodges any shortcuts, crutches, or flat-out plagiarism.  It’s pure.  It’s authentic.  It’s random.  Of course, the internet has generators for random names as well, but it’s nowhere near as fun.

Naming a character can sometimes become an overwhelming endeavor.  I hope these four strategies are useful so that you can get on to the most important thing — actually writing!

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)