Finding A Character's Voice

I have a neat little thing I'm doing in my wip (Book 5, Wing), which is introducing each chapter with a special scene, told in first person. A few of these scenes show a dramatic event in the character's life. Others simply establish a mood or a central symbol. All introduce us to the interior life of the character, which is what I like about these scenes, and why they are important to the book.

The other thing that I like, but which is also sending me in circles about my own tail, is that there is no faking it in these scenes. Unlike the more standard, third person, plot driven scenes of the novel, characters cannot hide behind their current predicaments to disguise who they truly are. These scenes demand that I know the voice, the history and the deepest concerns of the characters.

This is a problem, because there are one or two I still don't know.

There's one in particular who is hard to catch. I'm rewriting his scene over and over again, in a different voice each time. Sometimes I play with the tense/person too. Does it sound "truer" to his character to speak in a languid drawl, in clipped staccato, in lazy profanity? I haven't found the perfect tone yet.

To help me, I've also been shoveling through other people's books on my shelf, and through public stories on the internet, and poetry, and even old volumes of Mark Twain, not so much for direct inspiration as much as to re-acquaint myself with a diversity of styles and think what defines them. I'm hoping that can help me clarify what defines my character. Hopefully, he won't just come out sounding like Huck Finn. Especially since these days, even Huck Finn isn't allowed to sound like Huck Finn. Do to protests, certain words in his vocabulary have had to be replaced by less obstropolous terms like "zombie."

Huck Finn and Zombie Jim.


I like this idea of letting the characters introduce themselves. My next book will have at least a dozen first-person narrators (though they'll tell the stories of other characters in the novel, not their own stories), so I have to come up with at least a dozen distinct and believable voices. Some of which belong to real historical folks, which means I have to find real examples of these folks' writings or anecdotes about their mannerisms, etc. A lot of research.

When I have trouble creating a character, sometimes I think of whatever they'd be most ashamed to have the reader know about them, and have them accidentally talk about that. Even if it's got nothing at all to do with the story.
Tara Maya said…
How interesting to use multiple first person to tell each other's stories. Reminds me of the description of heaven as a place where people with really long spoons must feed each other; to have the right distance from the story you can never tell your own story, yet must speak in your own voice.

I also like the idea of having them (inadvertently) reveal something they are ashamed of. I wondered if the scenes I'd written had something in common, and I think it's that each of them speaks about a value which later in the novel they will betray. The character who prides himself on hunting monsters without becoming one will do something monstrous. The one who is proud of his heroic, martyred father will find out his father is alive and a shmuck,etc. All a bit transparent, or maybe it only seems obvious to me since I'm setting it up. Hopefully it won't come across that way.
"All a bit transparent, or maybe it only seems obvious to me since I'm setting it up." I worry too much about my stories being filled with cliches, and am constantly annoyed that I'll never be able to read what I've written as an uninformed and surprised reader. We just have to do the best we can.

Anyway, irony may be old hat, but it's a handsome hat that fits many heads. Irony is one of our best and most important tools.
Tara Maya said…
If one has a lot of characters, irony allows one to give the illusion of 3D in two broad strokes, the set-up and reversal. Each character is faced with the one situation in which he or she is guaranteed to fail.

But it's true this can be too obvious. Maybe I just watch too many children's shows (I have 3 rugrats under 5), where the ensemble cast goes through facing down their Fears, one by one, mechanically. Actually, children's fiction is fascinating, because the Formula is so unabashed and undisguised. (Yet not at all obvious to small children viewing, as it is to jaded adults.)

To avoid the set up/reversal being so clumsy, I think the "solution" has to be at right angles to both. I'm not sure what that means, but if I did, I think it would work.
I think a lot of fiction for adults is this same formula, only hidden behind layers of obfuscation and abstration. For me, the setting-at-right-angles has to do with making the stakes different: simply the awareness in the character of the irony, not necessarily having to overcome a mistaken perception of self. Henry James use of the Formula ends with a character realizing that they were never really happy, or that they've missed a chance at happiness or that what they thought was a chance at happiness wasn't real happiness, etc. Old-fashioned irony, but not life-or-death in the physical sense. Chekhov's characters never see the irony, never learn their lessons, but it's still basically the Forumula. So the right angles must be in the telling, not in what's told.

I don't know if I can write a story that's free of irony. I don't know what it would look like. Myth, maybe. Myths are usually unironic until you get to the broad social level, right? But there's no irony built in to most myths, is there?

Dickens often gets around this in big casts by giving his characters a signature line or trait, and no real character arc.
Tara Maya said…
Adults crave the same Formula as children, yet still want to be surprised. Even people who never read a single book, if they watch tv, are exposed to thousands and thousands of stories; it becomes harder and harder to be surprised.

I have nothing against writing Formula. I consider fantasy formula fiction (maybe it all is, but genre fiction in particular), and I don't mind this or consider it derogatory. To me it's like writing a sonnet. There are restrictions that come with the formula, and the trick is, how can you surprise the reader and yourself within that form?

I mean "surprise" broadly, too; classic tragedy is when the reader can see the downfall coming from page one, yet still have to read on to learn exactly WHY this character can't escape their own folly. So the "surprise" doesn't have to be a Sixth Sense type "Gotcha!"

Dickens... yeah. I remember you wrote an interesting post about Dickens using characters as living metaphors, like the jilted bride eternally stuck in her wedding dress. I think that can be effective too. Gremo, a character from the first trilogy, is like that: he's a man literally forced to drag a rock in circles. In this book, I have some characters like that too, a Blind Woman and a Dwarf, who are trapped those identities by each other.

Is myth the opposite of irony? Hm. Interesting question. Beowulf and the Iliad do seem devoid of irony. But maybe their age was not very ironic. I'm not sure the myths of our age can reflect our age WITHOUT irony. We are too self-conscious. Even Tolkien's whole epic revolves around one huge, inescapable irony. Lesser imitations miss this, and that is one reason they are not as satisfying.
I got nothing against the Formula! Half of what I do is look for ways to present the Formula that don't look like the Formula, but every word of my fiction is built around irony and reversals. It's what I think of as "story," in large part. Sometimes I think that's a weakness in my conception of fiction.

I'm re-reading Bulfinch's Mythology a couple of pages at a time, and this fall I'll be reading some old Greek plays (I know how to live, boy howdy!). I'll think about irony in myth then, I hope. Greek tragedy turns on irony, surely ("whoa, Oedipus; that's your mom!"), but the myths behind their religions seem to be presented without irony, at face value. So it's interesting.

Tolkein had already been infected with irony, and he looked at Norse myth through the lens of the Christian professor who despised war and the military machine. The whole Isengard story arc is about the rise of the military economy and how progress built upon destruction is a poison in the veins of a nation. Or something like that. I should revisit LOTR some year soon.
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