The Character’s Voice

I love my characters. All of them. Even the most hideously twisted souls amongst them, I love them. Whether it’s the protagonist, the antagonist, a love interest, mentor, filler character or random extra, they’re all special. It’s a bit like life.

Sometimes it might just be a taste of who they are that does it. A shopkeep gets thrown into the story, and sometimes I can picture them, or get a sense of their mannerisms. It could even be the way they speak, either in the words they choose, or their audible voice. The very presence of a character in your writing is subject to their voice.

Whether or not all of the character’s attributes makes it into your writing (and that’s something that’s more the case with the minor cast members), those details can be there. It mightn’t be relevant to the story that Old McMurty has been living out of his taxi for the past two months while waiting on his estranged daughter to come back to their old home with him, but it could result explain why he’s iffy about any longer trips, or tends to drive around instead of taking fares more regularly. When we walk around in the real world, mingling with crowds of people that feel like obstacles with bad hygiene, it’s easy to forget that those people have a world inside their heads too. All of your characters are like that – they could each potentially have their own turn of events that could take them to highs and lows, even if they bear no lasting impact on the story you want to tell.

Something changes when you write a character for a while. We might start with attributes or backstory. Suzie Protagonist might be assertive, but humble when it comes to something she’s passionate about. None of it starts out terribly nuanced. The writing of a character begins with broad strokes. Over time, we throw the character at different situations. We try to break them, and then build them back up. In doing so, smaller details begin to stand out. It’s a lot like a friendship. We start to know that when Suzie is upset, she talks a lot. She tries to occupy her brain, by filling it with superficial words (and never about what’s bothering her). At the outset it might look like she’s self-absorbed or shallow, but it gets revealed as a coping mechanism for her. Her actions become part of who she is, and how she relates to the world we’ve put her in. Thing is, Suzie might not be Suzie Protagonist. She might be Suzie Sidekick, or Suzie Minstrel, and of course, you’re going to make her confront the topics she doesn’t want to talk about to see what happens. Will she yell? Will she fall quiet? Will she patiently try to change the topic? We don’t know yet.

I’ve spoken about the rewrite I’m working on at the moment. There’s a shortlived character early on, who causes trouble for my two protagonists, and then comes down with a deadly case of death. He’s barely in it, but he has a name. He’s got a bit of bravado, but a ton of doubt. I also imagine he’s desperate, and looking for a way out of a horrible situation. He’s scarcely the only one, as the city it takes place in is utterly full of people at their breaking point. His out is criminal. Others aren’t. He’s tired, hungry and scared, yet also armed. Survival to him is a zero-sum game, and he’s a witless act away from being on the right side of the equation. His form of speech is threatening, but in the physical position of power he’s in at the time, it comes across as forced. The act is the threat, and if the one acting feels it needs a verbal threat, then perhaps the act is a bluff – or at least an unknown quantity. Body language comes into it in the form of an unconvincing smile, but also in the rapid movement of the arm holding the gun, between the two antagonists. Who knows if it’s even loaded? (and that isn’t even in what I’ve written – it just occurred to me).

The acting protagonist in the scene is different. He speaks slowly, and moves calmly. He doesn’t stand down or shrink back (though those words are never stated either), but carries himself with confidence. There’s no flinch in the face of the gun. The passive protagonist in the scene is only that by comparison, and despite the immediate threat to her, fights back. One might expect that if the acting protagonist wasn’t in the scene, she would have no problem with getting away from the assailant. She might be in danger, but she’s no damsel. The truth is these two protagonists are not hero and love interest, or hero and sidekick, but a team. They get past a terrible situation together, through their combined strengths. They are not invincible, while they are both very capable in the realm of their own strengths. There are gaps in the team still, and it’s also a situation where sometimes their respective strengths clash – so compromise between their two methods could turn out worse than using either method of their own.

The two protagonists also speak very differently, and also carry themselves differently. The woman is more affectionate, but also emotionally stronger. She can weather the stresses of their lives better, especially with regards to uncertainty. The man is more capable of brutality, but is the bleeding heart of the two. He’s much more caught up in doing right than merely not doing wrong. She’s stubborn and he’s delusional. He’s resourceful and she’s resilient. There are other facets that are starting to emerge, but that do tie in with some initial concepts I had for the character.

It feels like this sort of analysis could be applied to many characters in this story, and in fact, to characters in any story. However, a red shirt probably doesn’t fall under the category of character. Some of it happens unconsciously. Our mind fills in the details of characters before we logically think about it, so they might come to us partially formed. If we look at their attributes, they either become part of who the character is, or we alter them, producing a slightly different version of the same character. Does your random merchant sound like Robert Redford, or Piglet? Is he fidgeting with a beard, or slapping a beret against his arm? Is your hero speaking as many words as she could possibly do in a single breath, or is she slow and measured in how she speaks, frugal with her words?

I know how the merchant from the first chapter of my story sounds – as in, what his voice actually sounds like to me. I don’t telegraph it. I don’t try and push my own ideas about how his voice sounds into the story, though I’m sure his diction and words otherwise chosen would most definitely be affected by it. Plus hey, my whole psychic imprint on the story 😉

3 thoughts on “The Character’s Voice

  1. It’s an awful shortcut, but this is why I cast some of my characters. It means you can have… Preconceptions, sort of. And then set about getting them into all of the trouble. Or at least some of it.

    1. Ah, but then you almost never have Gary Oldman in your cast, because there’s no such thing as a stereotypical Gary Oldman role.

      I do understand the appeal – the merchant I added to my most recent scene started feeling like a cross between two different characters from different things – a gunsmith in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – and a snake oil merchant in Red Dead Redemption.

      Apparently all my merchants belong in the old west.

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