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Monday, July 15, 2013

Where's Your Voice?

Voice?  What the heck is that about?”  I mumbled, hunched over another how-to manual, a few months into scaling the writing craft mountain.  The snowcapped peak sparkled down at me, egging me on from the bunny slopes.  And hey, I think I can see some money up there too. I made a pot of coffee and cracked open another book.
A year later and a novel spent on the icy black and blue rejection runs . . .

“Seek voice and ye shall find a reason to drink,” I growled out, slapping shut the latest advice book. The liquor store was about to close, I had fifteen minutes to get there.

Two novels later . . .
“I still don’t get it, but I’m gonna fake it till I make it.”  My forehead hurt from all the smacking, and I was pretty sure my self-doubt had morphed into a sinus infection.  The cold drink against my brow wasn’t working. My hair was thinning.  Hell, even my cat’s hair was thinning.  Did the same person who invented algebra invent this voice thing? The garbage man wanted to know if I worked for Amazon.  The librarian offered me a job.  Enough.  I needed to get on with writing.

Three novels and Google to the 30th power later . . .
“You have got to be kidding me?!  Is that all there is to it?!  Why the hell didn’t somebody say that sooner?!” I snarled out at the empty room and thumped my drink down. The melting ice went unnoticed while I booted up the laptop.  

Some blessed advice-giver had managed to sum up Voice in a six-word sentence that clicked.
Are you ready for it?
“Voice is about the MC’s attitude.” 
Sure, there are lots of different factors that go into the voice of our stories, but attitude is what will get you there the fastest.
Attitude – It’s not just for smart-mouthed characters.  Attitude equals tone, in the sense of our characters, as well as our stories.  Here’s a look at some ‘attitudes’ we can bring to the table through our MCs.  The list is endless.  These might look like emotions to you, but don’t be fooled—this is about how your MC deals with the world, not feelings.  Pick one or two (that somewhat go together), then consistently focus your MC’s thoughts and words through that lens. Make momentary adjustments when certain scenes call for it, then get right back to the ‘tone’.

  • Wistful, hopeful
  • Mistrustful, suspicious
  • Upbeat, humorous
  • Sarcastic, exasperated
  • Depressed, frustrated
  • Crazy, no-holds-barred
  • Jaded, angry, resentful 

Keep in mind many of the factors that go into creating voice also fit in the character-building slot, but it’s not exactly the same thing. 

Here are a few more things we can do to amp up the voice in our writing:

Point of View – The deeper the POV, the easier it is to generate tone and attitude.  Using inner thoughts in addition to spoken dialogue gives our characters the opportunity to express themselves better, in an organic way.  It’s a double dip because it also draws readers deeper into the story.

Character Traits – We’re not talking blue eyes and blond hair here.  Character traits, which include quirks, are the tools we use to reinforce the tone and attitudes of our characters.  For example, a mistrustful MC might question everything anyone says to him.  Sometimes out loud, sometimes through inner thoughts.  Maybe he uses a mirror to look around the corner of every hallway, leaves traps in odd places to ensure no one has touched his stuff, let's every call go to voice mail first.  Looking at character traits this way is a triple dip—not only does is strengthen voice by backing thoughts and words with actions, using an ‘attitude’ to focus the voice of the MC helps focus the character’s arc, and giving our characters attitude makes them memorable.

Vision – How does your MC see the world? If he’s mistrustful what does he focus on while he’s walking through the mall?  What would a hopeful character notice in that same mall?  A sarcastic MC?  Show us that—make us see the world through your characters eyes—throughout the story.

A few thoughts that relate:

In a series, the MC may not have a character arc that reflects a major change by the end of each story.  All the more reason for a laser focus on attitude—that way the MC stays consistent in the readers’ minds throughout the series.

  • Some stories have quite a bit of ‘authorial narrative’ mixed in with the MC’s.  Harlan Coben comes to mind.  In that case, make sure you pick an attitude for the author’s narrative portions, as well as the MC’s.  They don’t have to be the same, but the ‘tones’ need to harmonize.

  • When advice pundits tell us: “You’re characters should sound like individuals. If done right, we should be able to recognize the MCs from the words on the page, no tags required.” – they are really talking about the attitudes of each of your characters.

  • An author’s writing style does not equal voice.  The way we arrange prose on a page does not equal voice.  Voice comes from character.

Are you ready for the test?  Get out the first page of your WIP where the MC comes on stage.  What attitude is she projecting?  How would you rate the strength of that attitude on a 1-5 scale? Take another look at my learning-curve ditty above . . . which attitude words on the list provided were used to tell that story?  What attitude-strength score would you give it?

Your MC has something to say, and she very much wants to say it in her own way, so let it rip.