I had to interrupt my series on query writing, just for one post. And lemme just take a break from talking ’bout writing for a few minutes. Everyone grab your chair, turn up the background saxa-ma-phone music, rest your feet on the ottoman, and close your eyes. (Okay….so maybe keep them open so you can read). I’m gonna tell a little story.
About six years ago, I began voice lessons with the lovely Tara B. I was singing Endless Nigh from The Lion King. And that baby goes high, much higher than my baritone/bass voice wants to go. Each attempt, my vocal cords protested with a squeal and a crack, like a car crashing into a glass factory.
Over and over and over and over.
Squeal. Crack. Squeal. Crack.
I was-a getting frustrated, that’s fer shure. Finally, Tara B says, “Alright Dustin. For just one minute, forget about technique. Forget about pitch. Forget about breath support and soft pallets and hard pallets. Forget it all.”
I try again.
“No, Dustin. You’re not forgetting. Just…forget.”
Squeal crack, crash and burn.
Finally, she said, “Alright, stop.” She handed me a pair of sunglasses, a black jacket, and a bow tie. “Put these on.”
“Alright,” she said. “You’re not Dustin Fife.”
“You’re Ray Charles.”
I raised an eyebrow.
She started snapping her fingers, closing her eyes, swaying with the music. She sang–and beautifully–a sound so sweet it woulda made the hulk weep.
“Now you try,” she says.
I started snapping my fingers. I closed my eyes, feeling the music pulse through my blood–soft and soothing like climbing into a warm bed on a cold night. I swayed with the beat, allowing my shoulders to relax.
And I sang. “You promised you’d be there, whenever I needed you, whenever I call your name.”
I soared right past the high parts as if I’d never struggled. Dustin Fife struggled with that part.
But not Ray Charles.
Likewise, there comes a time when we’re writing when we need to drop the rules–forget about fragments, forget about pernicious adverbs, forget about sentence cadence, showing not telling, word repetition, balancing description, injecting characterization, try/fails, and Deus ex Machine.
We come to a point where we need to don a costume and let the character speak.
Let’s have a look at the opening lines of The Book Thief
First the colors.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
***Here is a small fact***
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
***Reaction to the aforementioned fact***
Does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.
The Book Thief
Fragments fill the text, crazy formatting, overuse of adjectives, blah blah freaking blah.
But it works. That narration has voice–it has personality. You feel as if Death (the narrator) is having a conversation with you–a conversation that invites you inside the book for tea and freshly baked cookies.
Sometimes you just gotta let go.
Sometimes you gotta let the character do the talking, not the writer.
So let’s play with this a bit. Suppose we’re trying to inject some voice into this simple paragraph
I entered the store and bought a milkshake. It was the only thing my six week pregnant wife wanted. Upon checking out, a man entered carrying a gun. He demanded all the cash in the drawer then swiped my milkshake.
Completely devoid of personality. Now let’s try playing with the narration, using several different characters’ voices.
First, let’s don our wacky bright-colored clothes, tangle our long hair, and become a male version of Luna Lovegood (the movie version).
Hmm. Another day, another craving from the misses. Very well. I supposed it has been some time since I studied the oak leafs and dandelions. Ah yes, this might be quite an adventure. After a pleasant stroll filled with the scent of daffodils, freshly baked bread, and nardgrass, I arrived at the quaint little gas station on the corner of main and price…[probably more details here]…Huh. That man had a gun. Interesting. He didn’t seem the threatening sort. But you never could tell, these days. The man swiped my milkshake. How rude. Oh well. Perhaps the man needed it more than I.
Now let’s sport a different costume: dark sunglasses, military boots, and a gun in our back pocket and become an angry Sylvester Stallone-like character (then again, aren’t all his characters angry?)
The misses is pissed. Again. The misses has a craving. Again. Fine. Go to the store, get a milkshake, home in ten. Got it. Anything else, dear? So I pay the cashier and some jerk comes in holding a gun. He demands my milkshake. Really man? Truth is, I’d rather be shot than return and face the wife’s empty craving, know what I mean?
And just for fun, let’s do a snarky teenager (dressed as a man with a pregnant wife)
“Go to the store,” she says. “Get me a milkshake,” she says. “Be back in five,” she says. “I’m growin’ a liver,” she says. “What are you growing?” Tired of your attitude, that’s what I’m growing! But whatever. So I’m buying the milkshake, and some jerk barges in like he owns the place…holding a freaking gun. Seriously? Could this day get any worse? Why yes–yes it can, cuz the dude totally stole my shake! The nerve.
Is it any wonder that, among agents, voice is the most talked about trait of a writer?
How do we do it?
Simple answer: I have no idea how you’ll do it. Everybody’s different. But I’ll share what I do.
First, I find a character from a movie that best fits the personality I’m trying to convey. Next, I watch that movie. Like a practiced impersonator, I study her or his mannerisms, accent, gait, word choice. Once I’ve pegged that character, I start playing conversations in my head.
And then I write.
What about you? How do you immerse yourself in your characters’ voices?