Oh, but let my characters speak!
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
I decided on the topic for this month’s blog post in the only fair way I could think of: I held an Instagram poll. The results for the poll were a resounding ‘yay’ in favour of talking voice and character – two integral components of any half-decent novel, as you’ll likely know.
The idea of character is so drilled into us that young writers can sometimes be inclined to think there’s some overstatement happening. But that simply isn’t true.
There are novels where strong characterisation – and, more often than not, a strong voice – can carry the entire plot. Let’s consider J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, C.S. Barnes’ Intention (forgive me, but who doesn’t love a sly book plug?). These novels pride themselves on having a strong voice. No, that isn’t the only thing they have going for them. Yes, those voices, and the characters they’re attached to, do a damn good service to each novel.
It might seem obvious, but to write a good character you need to know them. That doesn’t just mean downloading a list of likely questions – what’s their favourite takeaway, and how did they get their first scar? – but it’s also about the big moral issues – where do they stand on pro-life versus pro-choice, and have they ever taken drugs? Okay, the first set of questions are important. But the second set of questions, and similar queries like them, will force you to consider who your character really is as a person, which is exactly what you’re trying to build when you write: 3-dimensional characters that your reader will buy into.
When you know enough about your character, down to their moral core, you’ll be a step closer to considering their voice.
“I love animals,” she said, smiling.
First, imagine your character is a seven-year old who’s visiting a petting zoo for the first time.
Second, imagine your character is a twenty-year old woman who has an interest in taxidermy fails.
Now, aren’t they some different voices you’ve got there?
The truth is, then, that voice and character are bound up together. Once you know who is carrying your story then you’ll be able to work out how they’re carrying your story. Take example one, from above; this voice will use lots of descriptions, give you more details than you likely want (although it’ll be endearing), and she’ll use simple language and dialogue. Example two, however, is more likely to use technical language, and there will be (I’d guess) some darker shades to her internal narrative.
Another trick of the trade worth remembering with your characters is that while they may not single-handedly carry a plot, they’ll certainly help you to structure one. If there are things that simply must happen in your story, but you don’t know what happens after them, then it comes down to a case of character:
What would X/Y/Z do in this situation?
If you know your characters and their voices from the ground up, then answering this question will be that bit easier too.
Until next time, then, my dears, happy writing and have a creative month!