I recently finished another novel and spent many months crawling around in the muck and mire of my characters’ lives, getting to know them—their foibles, flaws, hopes, dreams, and quirks. Most of all, I wanted to hear their distinct voices, not simply their cadence of speaking, vernacular oddities, or syntax choices, but their personalized way of seeing the world and vocalizing it to others. It wasn’t a nice, neat process—my poor characters had mud splotches on them the size of softballs—and that encouraged me. I knew my characters would be raw and real.
I’d undergone this process with my previous books, but I dug deeper with this particular novel, scouring the caves of my characters’ insides like a crazed miner with a pickaxe and a headlamp, desperate to find the gold they were hiding. Perhaps time and growth as a writer necessitated a more aggressive approach. Perhaps my own literary voice was finding greater clarity, and what I may have been satisfied with in the past proved insufficient now. In either case, it was an exhilarating and exhausting experience, something that can suck all the marrow out of you yet light your creative fuse like no other.
Voice is more than how you describe things in a story; it’s how you sense the story’s details—see, hear, touch, taste, and smell them. Your writing voice is your unique literary fingerprint. It allows you to give fresh breath and perspective to your characters and the organic world in which they live. If you find your voice, you’ve discovered something that can never be duplicated, dismissed, or taken away. If you take the time, dedication, and discipline to develop your voice, that is a rare treasure indeed.
To understand our characters, we shouldn’t just step into their shoes—we should jump into their skins. Only then can we discover their full passions and personalities. Just as an actor sheds his or her preconceived real life ideas and responses and enters the mind of the character, so we must suspend our disbelief and do as the character wills. When we live in the heads and hearts of our characters long enough, their genuine voices will emerge.
An author is a mall watcher, ever observant and listening, rather than a referee interfering with the game’s action and redirecting it based on perceived penalties. Better to sit and take in the voices of your surrounding characters as they shop, buy this and that, and decide what to eat at the food court. Don’t worry. They won’t be offended by your presence. In fact, they won’t even notice you. This is the only kind of eavesdropping that’s socially acceptable. Who knows what you’ll find out about your characters if you park your rump on a bench and stay a while? Only one way to know for sure. Enjoy the mall, friends.