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02.08.2011 18:55    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing  Writing  Writing Craft  Writing Voice  Writing Tips      Tags: character voice  michelle jerott  michele albert  

Understanding the concept and use of character voice helps a writer create multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters that will not only elevate their story to a "keeper" status, but bring readers back time and time again for a satisfying read.


Definitions of Character Voice:


  • What it is:  A unique quality which sets one character apart from another.  That quality could be as simple as using regional dialect for a secondary character, or something more subtle, as filtering perceptions through a character's life experiences.
  • Why we want it:  To flesh-out characters, add realism and emotional intensity, and to keep characters from speaking and thinking alike.
  • Where we find it:  Dialog and introspection (of course!)
  • How we get it:  By being aware of our characters and using that knowledge to construct dialog and introspection that is consistent and appropriate to each individual character.


Key Tools for Building Character Voice:


  • Dialog is one of the most powerful tools available to a writer.  It is immediate.  It shows (not tells) emotion and action/reaction.  It defines a character, provides drama and subtext (what is said vs. what is meant or implied).
  • Introspection can reveal characteristics or traits not readily apparent in dialog or action.  It can provide a contrast (which adds depth) or reveal secrets (which builds tension).
  • Body Language is a form of non-verbal communication and should be used as carefully as dialog and introspection.  A gesture or mannerism can speak volumes.


Adding Character Depth With Dialog/Introspection:


Imagine that someone has provided examples of dialog and introspection from a character unfamiliar to you.  If that character has their own distinctive voice, you should be able to answer at least one of the following:


1) What is their gender?

2) What is their educational and/or intelligence level?

3) What does the dialog show us about the character's personality, goals or emotions?


Once you answer any one of these questions, look specifically for key words or phrases that led to your conclusion.  Compare dialog and introspection to see what it adds to the character.  Is there a contrast that rounds out the character, to make him/her more believable, interesting or sympathetic?  Several examples:


"Hold the elevator!  The rest o' you, get outta the way.  Best step back, darlin'. Don't want them long legs brushin' up against the hot tail-pipe, do you?  Wanna hit the top floor button for me?"


You can tell this character is male.  An aggressive, cocky male.  You might think he isn't well-educated, because his speech pattern is not polished or professional.  He's rough about the edges, daring.  Definitely a man of action (yes, he's ridden a motorcycle into an elevator).


I told her I'd come back here every year at springtime.  I'm a little late this time around.  Funny how I forgot how beautiful it is up here this time o' year.  I keep thinkin' o' this piece of country as a place o' death.  And the truth is, it's just over-flowin' with life.  ‘Ain't no place to be sad,' that's what Harry Tabeshaw said.  He said, ‘The ghosts of those you love are tormented by your tears.  In the spirit world, they walk with the wind.  How would you like it if somebody came to call on you and all they did was cry on your chest?  Sing your spirit song for her.'  I told Harry I didn't know the words.  He said, ‘Ain't got no words, you just open your heart and let it flow out.'  He's right.  I shouldn't be sad rememberin' these things.  These are memories that make my heart soar like an eagle in the August sky.  I hear her laughing and the half-remembered smell of her passes by, just out o' reach.  Oh, those were days of sunshine.


This introspective example is from the same character and is consistent  in tone with the dialog excerpt.  But when contrasted to the dialog, it adds depth.  You can build a picture of this character:  His gruff, aggressive exterior hides a softer core, one that is even romantic.  (Excerpts taken from Wolverine #50 and #84, written by Larry Hama.  ‘Wolverine' is a trademark of Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc..)


Male v. Female Perspective:


You don't want your heroes sounding like your heroines any more than you want your characters to all sound alike.  Broadly speaking, men are reluctant to share their feelings, express emotions or respond to them.  Men are blunt, ask fewer questions and are less apt than women to invite the opinions of others.  Men speak more concisely than women because they use conversation as a means to obtain or relay information, whereas women use conversation to share information and form bonds of support.  Research shows that women say nine to eleven words for every one a man uses!  In the past few years many books have been published on gender differences (ex., Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of Love, John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus.)  If you wish to learn more about gender differences, check your library or book store for these books and others like them.


Avoid stereotyping, however.  Your hero doesn't have to always act arrogant or speak rudely to the heroine, and your heroine isn't obligated to be reserved or nurturing.  Contrast the Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford characters in The Fugitive.  One presents a rough and tough façade, but underneath he's compassionate and fair.  The other is a sophisticated, wealthy doctor who uses his wits.  His love for his wife, and his determination to find her killer, is involving and sympathetic.  Contrast Scarlett O'Hara's in-your-face determination to Jane Eyre's quiet strength.  Totally different characters, products of their respective situations and inner convictions,  and both involve the reader.


Examples of writing from the male perspective:


From The Return of Rafe MacKade, Nora Roberts, Silhouette Intimate Moments #631, Silhouette Books, 1995.


From the doorway, Rafe studied her, the way she stood, leaning a little on the counter, her eyes on the window.  Her face reflected in it.  His shirt skimmed her thighs, worn flannel against creamy skin.

It struck him hard, that he'd never in his life seen anything more beautiful.  He had the words to tell her; he was good with them.  But he found there were none this time, none good enough to show how much she mattered.

So he chose easy ones, casual ones, and ignored the ache just looking at her had spreading around his heart.

"I like your dress, darling."


From Walking After Midnight, by Karen Robards, Dell Publishing, 1995:


"So how do you feel when you're with me?"

Steve grinned.  "Horny."

Summer pinched his chest.  He yelped, rubbing the injured spot.

"Is that all?"  She glared at him.

"Hey, it works for me."

Summer pursed her lips and rolled off him, crossing her arms over her chest and presenting her back to him with a flounce.

"What more do you want?" he protested, leaning up on one elbow to peer down into her averted face.

"From you?"  Summer laughed.  "Not a thing."

"Now you're mad at me."  He dropped a kiss on her ear.  She elbowed him sharply in the chest.  He grunted, cringing, and then leaned over her again.

"I suppose you want me to tell you that I think we've got something special going here.  That with you and me, maybe it is a forever kind  of thing.  Is that it?"

"I don't want you to tell me anything.  I don't even want you to speak to me.  I --"

"Well," he interrupted, his breath warm as he spoke into her ear.  "That's just what I think."

It took a moment for that to sink in.

"What?"  She turned over so that she could see his face.  He smiled at her, rather ruefully, she thought.

"You heard me."

"Repeat that."

"Not on your life."


From The Loves of Ruby Dee, by CurtissAnn Matlock, Avon Books, 1996.


With Ruby Dee in the house, Will saw more bras and panties in a month than he had seen in his entire lifetime--hanging all over the shower rod, fallen on the floor, lying on the washer.  In Will's opinion, the woman was a little careless with clothes that were not meant to be seen.

One afternoon, he found a bra lying on the stairway.  It was startling pink against the worn brown wood.  As far as Will could tell, Ruby Dee didn't have a stitch of white underwear.

He hesitated, then picked up the delicate article, held it gingerly with his fingers.  It struck him that, aside from undoing clasps when these things were on a female, he had never touched one.


Each of these authors has their own very different writing voice, but they handle the male perspective particularly well, from Roberts' reformed bad boy Rafe MacKade and Robard's blunt, trouble-prone Steve Calhoun to Matlock's hardworking Oklahoma rancher, Will Starr.


Life Experiences:


Consider filtering perceptions through a character's passions, hobbies or beliefs for a more realistic, individual feel.  Same goes for a character who's lived a wild life, or survived personal hardship or trauma.  A cynical septuagenarian and an optimistic teenager view their worlds differently.


Example from Lucien's Fall, by Barbara Samuel, Harper-Monogram, 1995.


The claire-voie pricked music to life in his nerves.  New notes, notes that he'd not heard.  The ravens, so black against the green, the sky pale above, the dazzling butter yellow sunshine--framed with the stillness of the living window, green and silent, made music burst to life in him.

And from his heart, or his chest, or whatever place it was the music lived, he heard notes.  Violin.  He frowned.  No, viola . . . yes, and now a horn, soft and faraway.

As he stared through the opening, with Madeline wary and yet curious beside him, a raven lifted and flew into the morning sky, and with the bird's flight came a swell of notes.  Lucien hummed them softly, catching them.


Lucien is a composer who's denied himself his vital need for music.  As his love for the heroine develops, the music within him is freed and he begins to once again react to his surroundings--the colors and movement--in terms of music.  It is an expression of this character's inner growth.


Body Language/Mannerisms:


Mannerisms and body language should remain character-consistent and gender-appropriate.  Give a character habits that indicate an emotional state--for instance, a heroine who plays with her earrings when she's nervous.  You then don't have to tell a reader the heroine is nervous; her actions will show it instead.  Also, mannerisms and body language can add a subtext to action and/or dialog.


Example from For My Lady's Heart, by Laura Kinsale, Berkley, 1993


"Only tell me," he said.  "I can safeguard you."

She closed her eyes.

"I beseech you.  I beg you."

"Ficino," she whispered.

With a soft rustle across the rushes, he came close to her.  "You're with us now.  With me.  I'll keep your sister if God wills."

He stood before her, the devil's perfection, invoking God.  Abruptly he went to one knee and gathered the vestments and her hands within his, pressing his face into the cloth.  As suddenly he let her go.  He thrust himself back, as if he had touched a flame, and went to the passage.

He stopped there.  Without looking at her, he said, "You must send him word to meet you in the cistern cellar, the one where the oils are stored."

She stared at him, bereft of words at what he had just done.

"Cara!" he snapped over his shoulder.  "Repeat me, that I know you won't blunder it!"

She started.  "The cistern cellar, for the oils," she said.  Before she was finished speaking, he had gone.


In this example, we glimpse a secondary romance.  Allegreto loves Cara, but she loves somebody else and he never voices his feelings about her.  Instead, the reader gradually discovers Allegreto's unrequited love in the clues Kinsale provides in dialog subtext and body language.


Creating characters capable of "walking off the page" isn't easy.  In some small way, I hope this article will help you breathe life into your own wonderful heroes, heroines and villains.  Good luck and, most importantly, have fun!


About the Author


Michelle Jerott writes for Avon: Off Limits (10/03), Getting Her Man (10/02), Her Bodyguard (10/01), A Great Catch (9/00), All Night Long (10/99), Absolute Trouble (9/98).  She is currently working on next book.

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