Wednesday, March 09, 2011

LITERARY TERMS III: I Am Voice

The concept of 'Voice' can be intimidating. It doesn't have to be.
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When I think about voice, the first thing that comes to mind is distinction.

Most people would recognize Mickey Mouse's voice without any explanation. And few people would mistake Miss Piggy's voice for Kermit the Frog's voice. Both are identifiable ~ unique.

What makes a voice standout from another? What makes voice distinct? 

Tone, Diction, and sentence structure play a huge roll in defining voice. (Sounds like dialog just might be my next Writer Wednesday theme.)

Voice reflects the "who" of your character and the invisible drapery of personality, hopes, dreams, hurts, and those desires hidden even from them. It gives "sound" to your words on the page. Voice connects the layers of a character.

Miss Piggy is a snarky, stubborn verigo with a relatively stalkerish crush on Kermit the Frog. How do I know this? Diction or word choice, firstly. If you've ever listened to the dialog written for her, you've noticed the distinct rawness to her words. She rarely speaks with sweet or calming words, unless she's trying to soften some blow to poor Kermit. And then there's the bluntness she delivers her words, her mannerisms and force. That would be Tone.

Background, ethnic group, and setting of the story can also be huge in developing voice. Develop and plan, these. A character's experiences also steer voice. We've all read characters that speak hard or rough and then those who seem way too meek for anyone's good. Just as your life experiences have molded you, so have the struggles and hurdles of your character's life. Understand each like it was your life.

If you're having trouble with voice, try asking yourself these questions:


1. What is this character's background? (It may not be developed enough.)
2. What is the world they live in and how do they relate to it? (You may need more description and think about it in relation to the character.)
3. How well do I know or understand 1 &2? (If not, do more research.)
4. What are his/her motivations behind the goals I've set?


There are many exercises to developing voice.

Take a character from a book or movie you know well. I mean really well. We all had them, probably from high school. Set them in a place they'd never go and think what they'd say. If it feels out of sync, you probably understand their voice.

You can also take a staple character like a Jewish Rabbi or a traffic cop from a small town and put them in a place you wouldn't expect them to travel. Maybe put the Rabbi in a populated amusement park and the small-town traffic cop on the stand at a Superior Court proceeding. What do you hear?

Lastly, a great exercise is journaling. It can be true to your life or pretend. Just write as if it's your life.

Voice takes practice but it can be fun to play with. For me, it's one of the few aspects of writing I'm comfortable with. I love mixing it up, putting words in a character's mouth that no one would expect yet keeping them true to who they are as my make believe friends.

Can you think of a character with an unforgettable voice? 

14 comments:

  1. You explained that beautifully. Voice is sometimes hard to nail, but gets easier the more you write. You really have to get inside your character's head and you gave some awesome suggestions for that.

    BTW Miss Piggy is my idol. Love her.

    And happy belated Bday... I meant to stop by and wish you the other day, and dropped the ball. Anyway, hope it was fab. :)

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  2. This is great. Voice is hard and I think it takes a lot fo practice.

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  3. Good post! The characters in A.S. King's novel, Please Ignore Vera Deitz all have very distinctive voices. Perhaps that's one of the reasons she won the Prinz award.
    Another good exercise is to have one of your characters interview your MC.

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  4. Thanks, PK.

    Catherine, nice idea. I'll try that.

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  5. You've given a terrific example in Miss Piggy (and the others).

    I usually settle into writing the first draft then stop after a few chapters and try to figure out how to make the voice precise (ad depth) for each MC. I'm at that stage right now, actually. :)

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  6. Great post! Hope more writers stop by. Unique character voice is integral to a well-written story.

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  7. I usually test myself after I've drafted my manuscript. I read random dialogue clips to make sure I can tell who said it. If I can't tell, then the character's voice isn't there.

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  8. It's funny that my daughter who's 13yrs old picked this out as a problem in a mss I was reviewing. She said that the character's depth, feelings and perceptions were not captured strongly in the piece. It was like someone else was telling the story and although things were happening, the reader didn't know how the mc felt about it.

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  9. Great point, LM. Kudos to your daughter!

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  10. well, this tied in nicely with YALitChat tonight. seems voice is KEY to creating likable characters.

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  11. Absolutely, Jessie. I want to 'know' them, even if I decide not to like them. LOL

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  12. Thanks Sheri, So far I have only written one voice, so I am nervous at how I will write the voice of a new character.
    Your post will help me, as I move on to new Mc's.

    ;)

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  13. This is the best article I've read on voice. Well done!

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