The Power of “Voice” in Characters

The Subtle Art of The Storyteller #1
Making your characters REALLY talk.

“Once upon a time”…
“A long time ago, in a land far far away”…
“Are you sitting comfortably? The I’ll begin..”
That’s how they always began the favourite times of my childhood. Dark autumn or winter nights after school, I’d do my chores and my homework, turn on the gas heater and settle down in front of the TV for my favourite program of them all….Jackanory, the storytelling hour! I would sit rapt and it was there that my mother usually found me when she got home from work, in my little island of fantasy, enjoying and living every magical word…
I come from a culture where storytelling is considered a great skill, good storytellers are prized and will command an audience in the pub (more often than not). I always loved stories; reading them, telling them. I enjoyed, even as a child, lands of my own invention. I was, perhaps – by birth, genetics or upbringing, always destined to be a writer. A storyteller…
“You can learn, in books and that, how to follow The Right Way to do things. You can learn to write, you can learn how to use the language and The Rules. They can teach you grammar and how the important and rich fellas do everything. Storytelling though, they can never teach you that. You know that or you don’t. How to lead ’em along by the nose, listen to your every word; laugh, cry, rage…that’s born in that is. Writers can be made but storytellers are born…”
Ronnie Drew (1934-2008) – during a storytelling session of his in Cork, Ireland. Might be slightly paraphrased
Ronnie was one of the most interesting storytellers I knew and I only attended his sessions three times. He was old school but he could do all that he described. He was a drinker, a smoker and a swearer but he was beyond doubt a storyteller too. He is right, I believe, too, storytellers are not made. You can’t learn how to do it in a class, any more than you can train to become a good comedian. It’s in you. You can learn how to bring your inner storyteller out though!
I think that, if you enjoy writing, telling a story, waking a muse, you have a storyteller in there somewhere. Not until it is released, though, will you write as you were meant to write.
My journey is still one in process but, I am certain, this is rather normal. Even our idols, those writing giants of fame, fortune and BestSeller’s lists had to dig their storyteller out and give him or her a good talking to. Being a writer, I have just imagined that and, if you are reading this article for the right reasons, so have you. In fact, if you spend most of your day imagining darn right silly and pointless scenarios, chances are you either belong right here or in that place where everyone dresses in white and they give you those lovely fitted jackets. You know,  the ones which do up at the back. Nice soft walls in there too…Oh sorry I just did it again didn’t I? Well….

 Enough of my eccentric and random silliness for now, let’s get started shall we? A companion video blog entry is coming for this incidentally, so I won’t introduce myself, that can wait for the video. Where do we start? We start with characters of course! We all have them, they are the ones which we created first, before we started to invent stories to place them in. They are like imaginary friends who hang around in our minds feebly trying to attact our attention. We gave them life, we gave them traits (perhaps those we lacked ourselves), we gave them an identity. We gave them a name and we probably gave them friends and enemies.
In effect we started giving them opportunities for conversation. Now, conversation or dialogue is actually the hardest part of storytelling to do naturally and also the part which will turn a run-of-the-mill story into a great one. You can have the best techniques, the best style, the best grammar and use all the words you are supposed to, avoid all the ones you shouldn’t. You could have the most technically perfect piece of writing every conceived but nobody reads it. Why?
Because a flat piece of paper has more depth than your characters do. Your dialogue is about as engaging as those telmarketing calls you get after work while you’re trying to make dinner. Your characters all have the same voice. Chances are. I am not saying this is the case but there’s a good chance of it. We all do it and this is the hardest part of the storyteller’s art. Engagement.
How do you suck the reader in? How do you grab them by the throat and make them read your story? Putting a gun to their head doesn’t work – it’s very time consuming and one of them will call the police on you eventually. Begging doesn’t work either. Diva-like hissy fits? Nope. Emotional bribery of friends and family? Depends how good you are. None of that will get you the Holy Grail for a writer though; A Following. Once you have some fans, well…the world indeed is your overly-expensive marine mollusc of choice!
So how, O! Great and wise one, do we do that? You all cry in perfect unison? You tell me. I can teach you how I learned and improved, that’ll work for me but only you can take your journey. I can give you some pointers though.
It’s all about voice. Let me explain. Each character we invent and invest our time in has to have something which makes him, her or it unique and different from everyone else you add to your narratives. Chances are there will be more than one invention of yours in it. It would be rather boring if it was just one guy in a dark room wouldn’t it? He would start talking to birds or something…oh not, not that,  nevermore!

Take a look above and imagine the scene; probably a birthday or work function. There is probably noise, laughter and alcohol involved. People are likely enjoying themselves and may not be looking directly at everyone else. So how do we know who is asking us that embarrassing question at completely the wrong time? By their voice of course. How they sound.
Let’s go back to the good old days of my youth (if you don’t want to, this is my article so you really have no choice, sorry); when things were simpler, winters colder, young folks more polite and music decent etc. etc. Ok, ok! Back to the day before cellphones. Back them, in black & white times, if your phone rang, you usually had no clue who was going to be on the other end. This could often prove embarassing if some family members sounded similar to each other or you had forgotten what the person calling was, they sounded sounded like someone you knew but…. You could do one of two things in said scenario;
  1. Be a man/woman/child or worth and value and admit to your ignorance then face the consequences.
  2. Play along for a while, feigning knowledge but seeding the conversation with questions or leading pointers which will, if you are skilled enough, give you a clue to their identity.
Now, do you think it is any less frustrating for your readers if they do not know who is speaking? A book is not going to get offended if they ‘hang up’ on it, like a person giving you an unexpected call will. They’ll do it. They might even write you a review and it won’t be one of the kind you want. So now what?
Now, I am a bit of a rebel, I always have been, it’s in my blood apparently. I am of the opinion that, while there are no end of books, manuals and guides on how to do writing (error intentional), they have the intrinsic and artistic value of those instructon cards on aircraft. They make you feel safe and good but will be meaningless when it comes down to it. I am not saying there are no rules, don’t be silly but name me one artist who became famous by following the rules. One will be fine. Take your time, I’m not going anywhere….

So,. dialogue. That’s right, we were going there, I remembered, even if you didn’t. Dialogue is key to both the engagement, realism and character development in your book. Look at it this way; dialogue reveals a lot of different things, for example:
  1. It can  establish the voice and style of your character, how he or she interacts with others. His hopes. Her fears.
  2. How the character might act differently in the presence of different people.
  3. How groups of characters interact with one another, the group dynamics. The little cliques and the characters who don’t belong to them.
  4. Revealing background and side-story/history is always done better through dialogue (in my opinion.
  5. Just for fun and maybe sneak in some little hints and secrets though the diaogue.
Those are just some of the simple examples. I tend to use dialogue a lot and I like to put my characters in situations one would not expect to see them in. I do this for a number of reasons;
  1. It shows who they really are once you remove them from familiar surroundings, what comfortingly familiar behaviours do they default to?
  2. How does their behaviour change around the difference and the stress?
  3. Do group dynamics change? Do ‘leaders’ change?
  4. What do they do in attempt to restore normality to the situation?
These things tell a lot about your characters and help to develop them also. Everyone can create an archetype. We are all archetypes apparantly but we are also individuals. Our experience and our growth made us break from the archetype. In essence, our character development is what made us, us. Without development your character will lack depth. Without depth you could kill said character off and no-one would even blink. Let me give you you a scenario;
In Skander Draco we find four characters; Alexander, Neshaa, Kalliades and Sham; in a very unfamiliar situation. Their reality suddenly isn’t and they are living in a world where the history they remember never happened. They remember their past and their future (this haunts them in dreams) but they also remember their past in the world in which they now find themselves. They are uncertain of which is real – they are uncertain of their own sanity even – until they start finding one another. Until events start showing them that they are not crazy.
They eventually are reunited in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic and try to make sense of their situation and develop a stragegy to fix it. Mostly they default to their basic character traits for example;
  • Alexander. Taking care of and protecting his men. he cooks for them and takes care of their wellbeing.
  • Kalliades, he gets moody and confused at first, becomes passive and is referred to as a boy a number of times through dialogue.
  • Neshaa, becomes completely trusting and fatalistic, default behaviour for a ‘man of faith’. He pragmatically lets ‘fate’ guide his steps.
  • Sham. Actually becomes the de-facto leader of the group and the one everybody talks to, shares their worries with. Despite being worried half to death himself and very much lost and confused, he puts the others first.

The scene in Skander Draco where Alexander is cooking breakfast for everyone and his conversation with Sham before “the boys” wake from their hangovers, is very much the defining one of the book and the one which sets up everything else. That conversation with Sham and Alexander reveals much of the missing story as well as character points. So; a Macedonian Soldier, a Zoroastrian, an Indian Yogi and Alexander the Great were having breakfast in Santo Domingo does sound like the setup for a very strange joke, I admit but it is an example of natural behaviour. Out of their depth, afraid and in very unfamiliar circumstances, they seek solace in the familiar activities of food and companionship. Alexander executed a leadership masterstroke when you think about it. He actually got everyone to relax and be happy (or drive their mood in the right direction some might say) with some frying pans, plantains, salami and eggs. He displays the instinctive leadership the historical Alexander was famous for and also acts completely in character despite this being very unfamiliar behaviour for a man of his fame. He also becomes a real man, a person and, in doing so, assists in humanising everybody else.
I use food as an ‘excuse’ for dialogue often. I have been asked why and even accused of clumsiness (or repetiveness, maybe even simpleness) but ask yourself this; name a situation where conversation naturally occurs in human realtions. Food or drink will be involved somewhere. As a species, we humans seem to have entwined the acts of eating and drinking with social interactions  Your aim is to make your writing and, by the by, your story realistic and believable right? There you are then. I’ll use a quote if you make me, I don’t want to but OK then….
“It is the writer’s art to take unexectional people and ordinary lives, throw in exceptional circumstances and make greatness happen. It is your job to paint the ordinary in ways we find exciting…”
In other words, we take the ordinary and make it extra-ordinary, that’s what people pay us fo; nobody will buy a book which does not transport them somewhere, excite them, give them a journey to remember. If they wanted technically correct and dry pieces, they would read newpapers and textbooks. They come to us so that we can take them to somewhere they have never been before and in a way they will greatly enjoy. My last blog entry, by the way, is an “intercept” in two parts; part 1 is a 3-4 page telephone conversation. I did that quite intentionally as an experiment; to see whether my “voices” can be identified properly without me constantly reminding people whom is whom. To see whether their voice is identifiable by itself…
One barrier to creating tension or realism in a conversation are the constant “he said”, “She said”, “he muttered”, “he averred”, “she murmered”, “he yelled” and so on. I use them, everyone does, sometimes the choice of words or circumstances do not allow for anything else but not for every phrase!
Here are my “Rules” which I encourage you to break if you want to;
  • Give each character an accent. Give people from the same place, or same background a similar accent.
  • The accent does not need to be phonetically represented unless necessary (as for my dwarves) but you can hear it in your head as you write. This will influence word choice and pace, even if it is subconcious.
  • Qualifiers are more of a break between long chunks of dialogue than a requirement. Use them judiciously.
  • Using “He said”, “he smiled”, “She laughed” is actually OK, keep things simple.
  • People rarely use their interlocutor’s name at the end of every sentence. In fact they rarely use it at all.
  • Unless they are joking, making fun of, being sarcastic or in a group conversation and wish to attract said person’s attention or make a comment about them (usually a dirty or insulting one with my lot).
  • Having a section of unqualified phrases (nothing at the end of the quotation marks) which flows is quite a skill to manage. Good voice differentiation will allow readers to fill in the gaps and the passage will flow naturally as real conversation might.
  • Use qualifiers or lack thereof to manage the speed and the flow of your dialogue
  • Try different qualifiers and manipulate with them. I have used “F$%^ off” He hinted/opined/managed eloquently…among others.
  • If you can have more than two characters conversing and the reader can tell who is who, you are a master/mistress and I salute you!
  • Don’t take it so seriously, enjoy yourself! You’re doing what you love and are passionate about, remember? Make fun of yourself in your own writing, play with the 4th wall if you dare to…
  • Talking to yourself ‘in character’ does not mean you are insane. There were plenty of earlier signs for that. It’s called developmental practise and means you are a writer. Probably an insane writer but anything else would be an oxymoron!
  •  No really!
  • This is Sham, the skinny white boy is a nutter, do not be listening to his arse! He’ll tell that HE made me up! Seriously? I will slap his skinny arse up over the back of his head is what I’ll do! Made up? See him untie his ponytail from around his arse to see what made up is!
  • I didn’t write that last one..I..ah…well
Ok let’s try to put that little episode shall we? I can actually rescue something from that that situation and conveniently segway (not the silly two-wheeled thing mall cops driver around on) into my closing item. Character Rebellion or Character Coups.
What, oh writer of stereotypical Indians with “Oh dear bloody hell!” accents and using humerous malapropisms, are those? Those, you traitorous and very fake Fakir, are when one of your characters gets all sassy and decides that you need to write him a little differently. Perhaps a lot differently. Like Sham did.

Shamshir Naik, a Case Study in Fictional Character Rebelliousness  Disorder (not crazy!)
Sham is my typical example, thought all of my characters have become more than I originally intended over the course of the past year. Sham has, thought, been the most obvious and dramatic example.
Sham was to be a throw-away wise mentor, guide and teller of mysterious history. Essentially his purpose, in the first draft of Trinity was to rescue Gabriel and Unity, act as a wise mentor and tell them what being Trinity meant, what The Prophecies are and what they mean and then disappear after a few chapters,. He was also there for occasional comic relief. Not any more.
Let me explain. I was feeling personally that literature has been too full of fellows from my country, you know, fellows in turbans who play music to snakes and lie down on beds of nails and all that rubbish, right? So he makes me more sophisticated and educated (thank you for that, Alan!), gives me a pipe, (awful habit smoking; he smokes too, that’s why he uses it so often. Let’s see if he keeps that up when he finally quits..) and a smart arse mouth. I think, OK, this is hardly original here so how can I make myself a little more, you know, less stereotyped?
So, I think, I need some history is what I need. I need some depth and some secrets, right? Now I was stuck, I do rely on Alan a lot and he’d been very busy with all kinds of things so I was patient isn’t it, I mean I have to be really, right? Then I see he is really – I mean really with seven syllables – struggling with something. I mean he wants to write both of his old stories; the Alexander one and Trinity, which was mine but he can’t decide. He’s determined and motivated by those beautiful little girls of his (they are the most beautiful things you will ever see, I promise you. I’m not biased, I hate his arse!) but he can’t think how to start and which one to start on. So he starts with stories and puts those together in his Alexander Collections. Very clever that, I like it. Of course I make my appearances with Gabriel in Trinity then we – yes we made the decision together, he asked me if I felt comfortable with it and I agreed – decided to try me out in Alexander’s world. I am ancient (don’t look a day over 500 though!) and Alexander did have an Indian along for the ride with him so; seeing as we’d already changed history in quite a significant way already, why not make ME that Indian? It was simple and it was brilliant! I helped him out and really pushed myself in my scenes! I looked about and found some really good ideas. I suppose I should have asked him  first, you know, before I invaded Martin Castlebank’s stories too and linked myself not only to Alexander but to The Council and Martin also. I actually decided it’d just be much simpler if all the stories sort of fitted together, right? That meant he could just write and I’d do my best to help out, like. Ok, so I became pretty much THE central character in both series, helped create the unified mythology and world of The Hegemony and altered a number of frankly boring situations and characters with my presence but I remain humble. I am a very humble man, despite scandalous lies to the contrary! I actually found a way to link both series of books together through the method of my good self and in a rather artful fashion actuallyl! Thank you, Sham! You are an incredible and selfless person! He was about to complain about it AGAIN when all I ask for is a bit of gratitude from his arse just occasionally! I’ve worked really hard, suffered a lot and lived like seven lives at the same time or something…come on!
Well, he summarised much better than I could have! I’m sorry, Sham, thank you. You’re quite right! I’ll write you a girlfriend or something  like that (you made me celibate, you bastard!).
Sham appeared to rewrite himself and turn himself into both one of the most important characters of the entire Hegemony (past and future) but also one of the most pleasurable (and at times difficult) to write. He changed from a sterotype to one of the deepest and most interesting – and frankly surprising – people I ever invented (watch your step Irish boy!).
Has anyone else ever had that happen? With me, it has only been one character so far but what if they start talking and it catches on? Lupernikes already did a few unexpected things since he started hanging around with Sham; Kel and Kal have too. Those lot have a whole trilogy coming up that they will spend together! Sham gets to mess about in one trilogy without them before that (for those of you who ARE unsure, yes Skander Draco is the gateway between Trinity and Hegemony. Essentially it is how Sham ‘crosses over’).
Here’s the vital thing though; real people do unexpected things, all the time. It’s what makes them real. You HAVE to let your characters be occasionally unpredictable, you have to let them act OUT of character just like we do. That how we developed and how they will. If you behaved as was expected all the time you’d be just like one of your parents! You know this is true!
Archetypes and stereotypes are pointless and not really that interesting. Sham taught me that and, I have a feeling, he isn’t finished yet! Are you? You can safely bet your shiny white arse I’m not!

 Oh and all of you; you keep it up as well! Remember we are all a unique source of talent and we have to find and nurture our uniqueness, our oddness and our own eccentricity (we’re writers, none of us lack those). I encourage and greatly push you towards finding your individual story to tell. DO NOT waste your talent on what is popular or you think will gain you sales or popularity. We are artists, THE ART should come before the dollah, shouldn’t it?
Instead waste your time being you, your life making your dreams real (at least on paper) and having arguments with people who don’t actually exist. Everywhere elese they call you crazy for doing that, here they give you money if you do it well enough! Waste every spare moment inventing stories nobody will probably read, creating places few will every visit and people nobody will ever care about. Not unless you truly are amazing that is. Find out how to be…
See ya next time! The video companion to this article should be along sometime tomorrow…

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