Channeling your main character: an exercise in voice
by Nancy Butts
Voice is one of the key things that editors—and readers—respond to when they pick up a book. In Finding Your Voice, the novelist Les Edgerton goes so far as to claim that voice is all we have to offer as writers. There are no new plotlines or themes under the sun, he claims; it’s your distinctive take on life and the world to which readers are drawn.
What often confuses new writers, however, is that there are actually two different but intertwined kinds of voice: authorial and character. Edgerton, who writes for adults, seems to be talking mainly about authorial voice in his book. But when you are writing for kids of any age, it is character voice that reigns supreme. As much as possible, you want to keep your voice as an author down to a whisper so that your hero’s voice is the one that echoes in readers’ ears.
But what is voice exactly? It’s a slippery concept, easier to grasp in practice than it is to describe in theory. Just remember that voice is more than how a character sounds when she is speaking in dialogue. Voice goes beyond that to embrace everything about your main viewpoint character: the way she expresses her thoughts and emotions in internal monologue, the way she perceives and responds to the world and to the events that happen to her—even the way she describes people and places in descriptive narrative.
Here are two examples that illustrate character voice. In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, winner of the 2010 Printz Award, sixteen-year-old Cameron is diagnosed with mad cow disease, of all things. This is how the book opens.
“The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
“I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.
“Like Career Day? Really? Do we need to devote an entire six hours out of the high school year to having ‘life counselors’ tell you all the jobs you could potentially blow out?”
Now contrast this to the first paragraph of Ransom Riggs’ New York Times-bestselling novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which also has a teenaged male protagonist, 16-year-old Jacob.
“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.”
Both teens, both males, both with a momentous “before-and-after” event kicking off the book: and yet can you hear the different voices? [Note: these two books are also fantastic examples of how you need to dive right into the middle of a life-changing moment on the first page of your novel.]
Cameron’s voice is more informal, using lots of sentence fragments and slang, with an edgy, sardonic world view. Jacob’s is more formal and almost old-fashioned, speaking in grammatically-correct sentences that are fluid and elegant as he hints at something traumatic that has changed his life.
You can continue this exercise yourself easily at Amazon. Read the sample chapters which are freely available to you of a dozen different books, by different authors, with main characters of different ages and genders, in different times and countries and situations. The more you read, the more you will absorb the full sense of what character voice is, and how it affects a book.
I admit that in practice, it is difficult if not impossible to entirely tease apart a character’s voice from that of the author. Many books for kids aren’t written in a tight single viewpoint, and when an author strays into distant third person or even omniscient narration, it is her voice that you are going to hear. One example of this is the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.
Nonetheless, I still think that if you want to grab editors and readers by the throat and yank them into the world of your book, the best way to do that is to craft a compelling, vivid, authentic voice for your main viewpoint character—a voice that is distinct from your own adult one.
•Try this little exercise to help you capture the true voice of your protagonist. Let’s say you are writing a middle grade contemporary novel aimed at girls, and your heroine is eleven. Go out and buy one of those inexpensive page-a-day diaries that are marketed for tween girls; you know, the kind with a flimsy lock on the front cover. Get a pen with scented magenta ink while you’re at it, and maybe a fluffy-haired troll on the top where the eraser should be. Then come home and write two 250-word entries: one about the best day in the character’s life, and one about the worst day. Pour out her heart to the diary—hers, not yours, remember? Dot your i’s with hearts or suns or smiley faces, too—whatever it takes to help you channel that young girl who is living inside your head somewhere.
You can adjust this exercise to fit any aged protagonist. If you’re writing a picture book and the protagonist is five, then dig out some giant crayons and the tablets with wide-spaced lines (you, know the kind with chunks of wood still in the paper). Again, have your character write about his best day and his worst day. For a 13-year-old, maybe try this exercise by doodling in the margins of a school notebook that he is supposed to be using for history notes in class. For a teen, try writing a blog entry, but not from the keyboard of your usual computer. Text it from a smartphone or tablet instead. You could even try this a series of tweets.
I think you get the idea. The point of this exercise is to do whatever it takes to get you out of your own head so that your young character can move in and take over instead.
It’s not very good for our egos as writers, but one of the goals when writing for kids is to become invisible. Ideally, your readers should be so happily lost in the story world that you are spinning that they look up and say, “Huh? Who is [fill in your name here]?” You want readers to think that your protagonist is the one actually writing the book. So any place in the story where you hear yourself is a place where you need to get out your digital eraser and start over.
[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]