There are few things in writing more difficult to achieve or more difficult to explain than voice. Each character in a story needs to sound like an authentic, original individual. The bigger role that character has, the more important it is that this character sounds like a believable person. Creating voice is critical to the identity of the character, but typically, we writers rely on the language that is most comfortable to us, and that means characters can become generic variations of each other – and of us.
There are hundreds of books and articles on creating authentic voice, and they offer fabulous suggestions on dialect, speech patterns, and other valuable aspects, but few of them talk about listening to the character. Herein lies the part about seeming crazy to family and friends. Many writers, myself included, listen to their characters and have meaningful conversations with them. My writing partner Jared and I have had this very conversation – more than once.
I find it very useful to talk to my characters. I ask them questions, I find out about who they are, and I listen to the way they put words together. Diction and syntax are key components in language. Diction is the specific words that someone uses, and syntax is the order that those words are used in. Everyone has their own unique method of organizing words and phrases; we have colloquialisms, and catch phrases, and idiosyncrasies that make us sound like us. For example, Jared has a habit of saying, “I know, huh?” where I would say something like “No kidding.” If something is “cool” to Jared, it is probably “groovy” to me.
Language differences have a lot to do with background, ethnicity, age, gender, and residence. My friends from Vermont don’t speak the same as my cousins from North Carolina. My father-in-law was from Southern Utah and he had an entirely different style of speaking than my mother-in-law who grew up in Salt Lake. One of the things I find helpful is listening to the ways that other people use language. I love hearing words combined in unique ways, ways that I wouldn’t necessarily think of. One of my favorite writes, Christopher Moore, is a master of this. This guy knows how to curse and insult people in ways that no other person could conceive of.
Interviewing characters can not only give you an idea of who this person is, but also of how he or she should sound when you write his or her dialog. How does your character mix words? What inflection does the character add to sentences? What words are favorites of this character? Does the character have a unique way of structure a sentence? For example, Yoda from Star Wars speaks in inverted sentences, where the subject comes after the object. “Help you, I will.” Does your character use short sentences? Long ones? A mix? This interviewing has more than once caused my family to question both my profession and sanity. My interviews are sometimes done in long stretches of silence, but sometimes they are done aloud, and I sit quietly after I ask the question as I listen for the answer. I enjoy talking to my characters, and I learn a great deal more about the story by doing this.
It’s also important to note what your character wouldn’t do. For example (Sorry Jared), a 24-year-old man who recently lost his mother and suspects his best friend is in some trouble, is not going to use a word like “a-twirl” i his sentence. I’m guilty, too. My character, a 23-year-old woman who works with kids was constantly referring to “an ache in her chest” when she felt emotion. A character who works in a psychology setting should have a much better vocabulary for describing emotional responses.
Cultivating a character’s voice takes time and practice. A lot of little bumps can be ironed out in revision, and with the help of someone willing to do a thorough reading of your work. I’m fortunate to have Jared and other friends (Carol Lynch Williams, Louise Plummer, and Kerry Spencer to be specific), who are willing to look over a manuscript and to look for issues like voice. Having someone else to “listen” to your characters with fresh ears helps to strengthen the story and make your characters more believable. Having your family think you’re a wee bit cracked is a small price to pay when compared to having readers say they would recognize your characters walking down the street.