Finding a voice
This is the third in Derek Neale’s four-part creative writing series, ‘Developing your style’. (Note: links in this article are to iTunes podcasts).
Actors impersonate. And in many ways that’s just what we do when we write a story – we put on the voices of our characters, and the voices of our narrators too.
Voice is very important in fiction. In a film or play the mimicry is partly achieved by the actor’s intonation and performance. But a significant part of it is orchestrated by the scriptwriter, who provides the actor with a character’s specific diction and speech rhythms, as well as a subtext of fears and desires.
Determining a character’s vocabulary is often a question of choosing between basic words – would she say ‘ain’t’ or ‘are not’; ‘farewell’ or ‘bye’.
The playwright Tanika Gupta admits to hanging around at bus stops to pick up the latest teen talk.
Why not try it? If not bus stops, listen at work, in cafés, shops or pubs. Listen for words and phrases that people use frequently – ‘quite’, ‘really’, ‘like’, ‘cool’, ‘you know’. If used subtly, these repetitions can lend an insight into how your character thinks.
The scriptwriter’s use of full stops and commas is surprisingly important too. These tell the actor when to breathe and when to pause, creating the rhythm of a particular character’s speech and thought processes. Alan Ayckbourn describes how characters’ voices can evolve through his first drafts – he uses the tactics of interviewing them while he’s in the shower and talking to them when out on a stroll. And he returns in subsequent drafts to ‘re-voice’ them.
Try interviewing your characters (not necessarily while in the shower). Performing and editing voices is a crucial part of a fiction writer’s craft. So is research, as the scriptwriter and novelist Jane Rogers attests – she gathers the cadences of her characters’ voices by reading diaries from the era in which her novels are set.
A common shortcoming in novels is when all characters, including the narrator, sound the same. But this can be solved.
Imagine your reader performing the characters’ voices. Think of your main narrative voice as a dramatic monologue. Imagine the story as a dramatic performance. Are your voices distinct? Do they use just slightly different vocabulary? Read them aloud – this can be a vital part of your editing process.
Novelists can learn much from the way dramatists script and develop characters’ voices. And it’s handy to remember that your eventual reader will not only be the performer of all the parts in your novel. They will also be your audience.
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