It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, a short or a full-length novel, voice is the lifeblood of your work. You might have all the elements of a great story – a dazzling twist, an arc to rival a rainbow – but if you haven’t got a voice that mesmerises, your story will be drowned out by dull.
I’m reading Glorious Heresies at the moment – and the riotous voice is fair shaking me up and demanding I listen. It’s pushed me right into the mess that’s Maureen clobbering some bloke over the head with a holy stone and killing him.
A week ago, I polished off Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The voice of the flawed yet deeply loveable Olive is so believable, so sturdy that my race to read was slowed only by me underlining far too many sentences.
Mind you, just thinking about books like these can be really daunting while your characters-in-the-making are as quiet as the tele with the sound turned down.
Voice is hugely important, says writer Joanna Campbell. ‘If the theme is the hinge and the plot is the oil keeping it in smooth motion, it is the “voice” which opens the door.’
When writing, Joanna lets the character call the shots and write the story for her. ‘I never plan ahead anymore or work out a plot. On the occasions I have tried to do so, the story has rarely succeeded.’
But how the heck do you find your character’s voice? Here are four tips to jumpstart your search.
1. Scribble some character details
Get yourself started by writing stream of consciousness details about your character. Is she a good sleeper? How does she take her tea? What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to her? Whose calls does she ignore? What gets on her nerves most? You’re getting closer…. Now off that mute button and have a stab at making her speak.
2. Do some research
That voice is playing silly devils and isn’t arriving on the page? Do some research around your story. So it’s about a woman who finds out she was snatched from her birth mother while still a baby -assemble some comparable real-life stories. Reading them might just coax your character into conversation.
3. Start typing and see what happens
Does the voice sound real and right to you? If not, regroup and try again. Words aren’t wasted, they just bring you closer to the characters waiting in the wings of your mind. Writing’s full of false starts after all. When I wrote my Bristol Prize story Black Lines about a Honduran boy crossing the US/Mexico border, I originally wrote my first page as a gay male teenager. 500 words in, it became apparent to me, the lad needed to be a lot younger. I started writing again and this time he spoke right into my typing fingers.
4. Shift the perspective
I’d been having a love affair with first person for years. Working as a writer for women’s weekly mags, I’d interview people with all manner of stories and write them up in first person. God, how I loved it. What I didn’t love so much was reading it back to the interviewees. The woman who’d answered yes and no to most of my questions read like Homerton’s answer to Barbara blooming Cartland. But still, first person and me, we prevailed. It’s always my first port of call with short stories. And then my novel happened. First person was trapping me in the characters’ heads; I’d ended up using their thoughts to steer the reader instead of showing action and writing dialogue. Rewriting the whole thing in third person has made the novel punchier and more powerful.
I’ve been playing a long game of hide and seek with the voices of the characters in my novel, but at last I’ve found them. And now it’s time to start creating another cast for my new novel; back to step 3 then…..