Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

09 July 2024

Giving Voice to Your Characters

Last week a fellow writer early in her career asked me about voice. Could I explain it to her?

I told her that voice is the way you make your characters sound real, how you enable them to come alive instead of lying flat on the page. It is the way you differentiate your characters through what and how they think and talk. Not just their word choices but their cadence, whether they speak in full sentences most of the time, whether they trail off often or interrupt others a lot. Whether they use slang or curse words. Whether they use a lot of long or short sentences or if they have a nice mix. Whether, to boil it down, they have attitude. Whether, to bring us back to the beginning of this paragraph, they feel real.

The author asked if I could offer any examples. She learns better through examples. In case you do too, here are some from three of my recent stories.

From “Beauty and the Beyotch,” published in 2022 in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine

        I smoothed my shirt as I neared the lobby at lunchtime the next day, hoping it hadn't wrinkled. You're overthinking things. Kids don't care about stuff like that. I just wanted them to like me.

Can you tell that character, Joni, is a nervous teenager who often doesn't fit in? She is worrying about wrinkles, for Pete's sake. Her desperation oozes off the page.

Let's turn to the two other main characters in that story. Here's a bit of dialogue between Elaine, the first speaker, and Meryl.

        “A teapot? You expect me to be happy playing a teapot?”


        “So you think that ho will steal the lead from me.”

Does Elaine come across as a bitch? Her attitude is snarky and entitled. She cuts Meryl off, not letting her answer the very question Elaine asked. She uses mean words about another girl, Joni. She may not be likeable, but Elaine certainly has attitude. She feels real.

From “Real Courage,” published in 2023 in issue 14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine     

        Four years later, on a warm spring Saturday night my sophomore year of high school, I ended up down the block at Dereck’s house. He was throwing another rager. Kids were everywhere, smoking cigarettes and weed and other stuff I didn’t want to know about. Someone had smuggled in a keg, and someone else had made Jell-O shots. Music was pumping, and I was glad to be there. Glad to be out of my tomb of a house, where the lights were always dim and it was always quiet and my dad was always reading in his study. He’d retreated there after my mom died and pretty much hadn’t left. Books were his escape, he once said. I understood. But sometimes I needed to let loose.

That was Connor talking. He's a fifteen-year-old kid who fits in socially, who loves his dad and doesn't rag on him, but who also wants to live differently than his dad does. His dad would describe their house as peaceful. Connor calls it a tomb. He talks about his need to let loose. Imagine if Joni from “Beauty and the Beyotch” were at the this party. Okay, Joni would never go to that party, but imagine if she did. She would never think she needed to let loose. That idea wouldn't would cross her mind. Joni would be focused on what to say and who to talk to so she would fit in, and chances are, her awkwardness in what she said and how she said it would make her stand out as a girl who didn't fit in.

From “A Matter of Trust,” published earlier this year in the anthology Three Strikes--You're Dead!:

        You can do this. It’s not like I was incredibly out of shape. Just sported a little extra padding around the middle. Cycling shouldn’t be any problem.

That's Ethan. He promised his wife he would start riding his bicycle regularly to try to get his blood sugar under control. He's talking to himself, and I hope he comes across as a man who thinks highly of himself, a man in denial. 

So those are some examples of using voice--using attitude--to bring characters to life. You may not like attitude coming from your kids or coworkers or customers, but you want it in the characters in your fiction. That's not to say characters have to be snarky, but from reading what they say or think, the reader should be able to find some adjective to describe the character in question, be it neurotic or mean or narcissistic or chipper or some other descriptive term. Your characters should feel like real three-dimensional human beings, emphasis on the word real.

Before I go, I had a guest cover my column three weeks ago, so this is my first chance to share here that my story “Real Courage” has been named a finalist for the Macavity Award. To those of you who received ballots, I would be honored if you'd give it a read and consider voting for it if you like it. You can find it on my website. Just click here.