My 'Voice' problem

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Incanus, Mar 17, 2017.

  1. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    I’ve painted myself into a corner, and now I have to make my bed there and sleep in it. Or something like that.

    The basic personality I chose for my MC is that he’s level-headed, rational, more intelligent than not, skilled at his occupation (he’s a soldier), and an all around good guy, but he’s also a little reserved and not very outspoken. He has a young wife who’s pregnant with their first child.

    This seemed like a recipe for a pretty relatable character.

    The problem is that all this leads to a boring, straight-ahead character voice. In other stories, I’ve been able to create (to dome degree) a distinct voice that fits the character, so I know it’s not that I can’t do it at all. It's crucial that the voice match the character, and mine does, but that turns out to be a liability in this case.

    The obvious solution of re-designing the character so that he’s more quirky or has some odd flaw won’t work. Such a change would radically alter the events of story to the point where I would in effect be starting a new book and abandoning this one. If I’m going to start a new book, it’s going to be another idea I already have developed, not a re-hash of this idea. So that won’t cut it.

    Abandoning the project would mean lots of wasted work, and it would mean losing out on the benefits of completing something.

    Continuing the project means being stuck with something I know is deeply flawed.

    It’s a choice between bad and crummy. If there’s another option, I don’t know what it is.

    For now, it looks like crummy wins and I continue on. Somehow just telling myself this is my ‘learning’ or ‘practice’ novel feels pretty inadequate.

    Has anyone here been in a similar spot? If so, what did you decide? How did you come to your decision?
     
  2. Mytherea

    Mytherea Journeyman

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    So I'm of the opinion that the character's voice stems from more than just their personality traits. It's also their experiences, their upbringing, where they work, and so on, and I'm wondering if this voice issue comes from not having a solid idea of how his past has influenced his present.

    First question: is this first person or third? And if third, third close/limited or omniscient? Just for an exercise, have you tried flipping them? If it's third, go to first, first, go to one of the thirds. Also, what's the narrative distance? Happening in the moment? Told from a distant future reflecting on the past? Or does it go in and out? Try flipping this, just for fun.

    Second (barrage) of questions: you mention he's a soldier and is married, but what else? What social class was he raised in? Is it the same that he is now? What's his education? You say he's good at his job. Has that influenced the way he walks into a room and how he describes it? He's reserved and doesn't speak much, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have opinions. What're those? Does he have any that might be unpopular, if not with other characters, than with a potential reader? What's his religious/spiritual background? What are his pet phrases and curses and oaths? What'll make him snap? Threaten his wife? His unborn kid? What irritates the hell out of him? Does his history have secret heatbreaks and joys? (It should. Even if he's young, he's experienced something) Does it have public ones? Why's he a soldier? Is, or has, his country been at war? Has he seen action? What's his relationship with his parents like? Extended family? Friends? What are his hobbies? What are his passions? Can any of this change? And can any of this information be worked into what you already have? And, just as a side-note, it's very likely you'll end up rewriting the first two or three chapters (or, if you're like me, the first third of the book) anyway when you're done, 'cause you found the voices of the novel and the characters halfway through and now it's not matching up. Which is fine. It's really common. Sometimes that means totally redrafting, but sometimes it's just changing the phrasing and the details here and there.

    Just from personal experience, I used to swear like a sailor in college, but I now work at a public library. Can't go around with salty language when you're constantly surrounded by five-year-olds and their parents. So now I more rarely swear, or use not-real-swears like "fudgings" and "crappola"--which has influenced the way I talk (and, occasionally, how I think), which is completely different from both how I used to talk and how my coworkers talk (one of which never, ever swears, even fake-swears, whereas another has no trouble dropping the occasional f-bomb when she thinks no one can hear (this is not true; we can all hear her, but we're not saying anything 'cause it's not worth it)). Contrasting your character to other, occasionally extreme, characters can also help you find the character's voice.

    I'm also of the opinion that whoever said that a character must foremost be relatable did writers a great disservice. Make 'em interesting first. Relatability comes from how they react to situations and how they act, but if they're not interesting, a reader won't stick around long enough to relate.

    Anyway, just my two cents, and not worth much more than that.
     
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  3. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    Thanks Mytherea, lots of great points and questions.

    Should have mentioned the POV--it's limited third, and in the moment without narrative distance. If there's any change I could make along these lines, it might be to put time between the narration and the events, making the whole thing a reminiscence. Hadn't thought of that one before. Still, that would require a total re-write, something I'm trying to avoid.

    I should also mention I've done a complete draft of this novel, and am on my fourth rewrite of Part 1, which is about a fifth of the whole, or about 100 pages.

    Also, I know the answers to just about every question you asked about the character. I have a bunch of info about him and know who he is--and that's part of the problem. He's been designed as an 'everyman' and his voice is just plain.

    One thing might be to find some precedents. I should try to think of a novel with an 'everyman' protag, and see how it was handled there.

    As best as I can make it, it might be a reasonable goal to have this novel meet the minimum requirements of storytelling, but not have the goal of it being super-fantastically awesome. It's my first after all. I'd like for it to be a great novel, but maybe it's actually okay for me to only expect it to be just mediocre.

    One thing's for sure: I won't ever be making a mistake like this again.
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Gary Cooper.

    Or pretty much any hero from Louis L'Amour. For that matter, Philip Marlowe. There are scads of examples. There was a whole generation of American literature filled with exactly that sort of character.

    There's no reason at all why a straight-ahead character cannot be downright fascinating. Ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. Note I said extraordinary, not necessarily exotic.

    As for voice, why does he need a particular voice? Give him a physical tic--Humphrey Bogart's grimace/grin, or the Duke's rolling walk, or even just Marlowe's ability to not beat around the bush and sometimes to burn the bush to the ground.

    The key is, from my lofty position in the cheap seats, to reveal character through action, to give him the values of the common man (or the values the common man likes to believe he possesses), and to place him in situations where the people around him are unusual, corrupt, flamboyant, or otherwise flawed. Elwood P Dowd. Here's his card. But don't call him at that number, call him at this number.
     
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Yep, totally agree.

    I'd also like to add, in a story told in third there's really two voices that you have to wrangle with, the character's voice and your voice. There are different ways in which these are handled. One is suppress your own voice and have the character's voice be the one that dominates. Two the other way around, your voice dominates while the character's voice is muted. And then there's the in between.

    If your character's voice is boring to you, you can try and bring out your own voice a little more.

    Another approach you could try is, sure your MC is sort of mundane, but you can play with and off of that with a bit of humor. How much depends on what type of story you're telling, and it doesn't have to be belly laugh humor, but it can give you opportunity to add more flavor to the text. I mean you can insert characters around your MC that are more flashy, humorous, lively or all of the above to balance off the more grounded character. Your MC could be the straight man.

    Here's an silly example, a dragon flies over head. Your MC takes note and proceeds without an outward reaction. A companion trots up and says, " Did you see the dragon?"

    "Yes." MC glanced up again. No threat. Not worthy of further regard.

    "It's a friggen dragon."

    "Yes. A big one." MC shrugged.

    The Companion squinted. "You really have no sense of wonder do you?"

    "The only sort of wonder that crosses my mind is I wonder how I ended up travelling with you."

    Hopefully this makes sense. It's not over the top. It's just a simple exchange that anyone could have that plays off a reserved character's personality.
     
  6. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    That's funny, my co-worker just mentioned Louis L'Amour in regards to this issue. Unfortunately, I have little to no knowledge of any of the characters and writers you name, excepting Bogey. I think movies aren't going to be much help here, though--the difference in medium in this case is pretty critical.

    Why a particular voice? For one thing, two of three beta readers (or whatever I should call them) have pointed out a lack of voice, and I tend to agree with them. Also, my understanding is that agents/publishers are really keen on this these days.

    Marlowe is like a detective or something, right?

    As things are, I do reveal things about the character through the action of the story. I'm doing that much. Another good thing I've got going is that every beta reader agrees that my story's premise is solid and even intriguing. So I'm mostly good there.

    It's not so much that the MC isn't an interesting person, just that he doesn't say or think things in an interesting manner. So it's a voice problem, not a character development problem (although I developed the character in such a way as to give him a plain voice.) This shit is going to drive me batty.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Gary Cooper in High Noon. Yes, it's a movie, but watch it anyway. Try closing your eyes and just listening to the dialog.

    Philip Marlowe is the private eye created by Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep. Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye. Honestly, I swoon just reciting the titles. In these cases, definitely read the books. The movies are excellent, but ya gotta read the books.

    As for Elwood P. Dowd, well that's Harvey. No one here should be allowed more than three more days on this planet without having seen that movie. For that one, notice how normal Elwood is compared to the characters around him (even though he's supposed to be the crazy one). Beyond that, pay close attention to Jimmy Stewart's facial expressions as he delivers certain lines. That little smile of his is a perfect example of how voice isn't always limited to the speaking voice.

    OK, I cannot leave without quoting from the play (it was a play before it was a movie). Only two, I promise.

    The first is appropriate for all who write fantasy. He says it in response to his psychiatrist, who tells him he has to learn to face reality.

    Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.

    And this one, which is as good a philosophy of life as one could wish.

    Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.


    So I did.
     
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  8. Mytherea

    Mytherea Journeyman

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    Apologies for assuming you were at a different place in your novel than you are. I hadn't realized this was a more finalized draft.

    Hrm. Well, you could try tweaking some of the metaphors/similes in your descriptions so that they more clearly stem from the character's viewpoint/experience? It's been awhile since I've read Chandler, but even though Marlowe is a more "everyman" character, part of his voice is how he draws comparisons and what to (imo). Definitely worth reading and studying.

    I also agree with Penpilot about just embracing the voice and running with it. If humor doesn't fit in with the tone that you're going for, you could have the character's leveled personality be a point of contention between him and a secondary character (or more than one).
     
  9. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Grandmaster

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    Another option is to have a different POV character who is present for all of the action and has a more interesting voice, who can tell the entire story by observing the MC, commenting on how extremely plain the fellow is. This is the approach I'm taking with my WIP, which previously had an MC POV that the beta readers did not care for. I'm having to rewrite the novel in the new POV, but if you're changing the voice throughout your novel, I don't see how you'll get away from a near-total rewrite. The saving grace is that the scenes are already written, so you don't have to come up with the scenes again, just the new wording for each scene.

    I'm at 52K of 120K on the rewrite. I had to go with three POV characters to tell the whole story, since I was doing away with the central character as POV character. I've decided to add some new material from the new POVs that wasn't in the original text, because the MC isn't involved in those scenes, but they really help to make some things clearer. So that's an added benefit of going with different POV characters. I like the way the story is told so much better myself now, and I'm hoping the next batch of beta readers will like it too. It is taking time, but this is also my first novel, so there was bound to be some bumps in the road. Sometimes you just have to hop in the roadgrader and knock those bumps down.
     
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  10. psychotick

    psychotick Dark Lord

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    Hi,

    It's a bit difficult given that you're already at the end of your first draft. My thought would be do it with his internal dialog. A few wry observations might help. For example he's a competant soldier so maybe he passes another soldier holding his gun incorrectly and thinks to himself "that guy isn't going to live long - not unless he gets a good kick up the arse." Also since he's a soldier and they're crude to be a little sterotypical, some colourful swears could help.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  11. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    Thanks for the great replies.

    I think I may have a way to deal with this niggling issue. One of the maddening things about this is that the voice I'm using does actually fit the character--it's just that that voice isn't all that interesting on its own.

    So the action of this story is pretty fast-paced; it's not supposed to be particularly deep or anything. Those portions and much of the dialogue don't require a lot of voice. It's mostly the introspective moments that suffer. Very recently, I wrote such a section that was better than all the previous attempts (corroborated by my trusty go-to writing friend), rough though it was.

    After sleeping on that development for a few days, I think the way to tackle this will be through relying content more than on voice. The recent bit I wrote had stronger opinions expressed in it, and felt more genuine than the previous stuff. A handful more of these types of moments could go a long way toward fixing this.

    That, and I also like the idea of punching up some the other characters around him. (No, I don't mean hitting them in the face.)

    It may not be perfect, but I think I can live with it.
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    I've been thinking more about some of the characters I mentioned. Take Will Kane, for example (High Noon). The action is very straightforward. His speech is plain. So what draws us to the character? It's the moral dilemma. Does he resort to violence again? Well, of course he does. But what drives him to it? That's the hook. What will make this guy cross a line he has drawn for himself?

    Without the moral dilemma, this would not be a classic. It would just be a retired sheriff who gets into a gunfight. Yes, it helps to have those around him be more colorful. It really helps to have a villain you love to hate. But it's the moral choice that has to be made, a choice indeed that he has to make more than once, that keeps us close to the story.

    And, if you think about it, his stoicism and laconic speech actually pulls us in. The dilemma is stated early in the movie, so we know what is at stake. We wind up wanting Kane to say more, to show more emotion. We want to share in his pain. In a romance movie, it would be where we're urging the guy or the girl to *say* something. That's a great hook because you can keep tugging at it.

    Anyway, it just really struck me that the ordinariness of a character can actually pull readers in. But it has to be handled right, of course.
     
  13. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    Yeah Skip, I think this is where this thing is headed.

    You know, I think I'm going to check out a couple of these westerns with the laconic MC. I hadn't thought of that. It's not my favorite genre by a long shot, but I see more than ever how there are things to learn that come from just about anywhere.

    And you're right--I really need to see Harvey. I think I may have seen it as a kid, but I can't recall anymore.

    This isn't over yet...
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    One thing I have found in reading far outside my genre is that I care less about the story. It's actually easier to pay attention to plotting, character arcs, how setting is handled--in short, to the mechanics of the story--than it is when reading fantasy or SF. For me, anyway. I think it's because when I read fantasy, I *want* to be swept away, but in reading a crime novel or a Western, I have no such expectations. It's like when I listen to big band music I can clearly hear the arrangement, the structure of the song, and elements that will later feed into rock n roll. But I don't lose myself in it the way I do when I listen to the music of my youth.
     
  15. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    Query: have other readers told you that the character's voice is boring? Or is it just that you think it sounds boring?
     
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    That's a good point Skip. I do the same thing with other media too like movies and tv shows. And especially when the movie is bad. :p
     
  17. Incanus

    Incanus Shadow Lord

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    Hi Mythopoet.

    So 2 of 3 members of my little group mentioned this problem, and I agreed with them. I suspect the other person would have eventually brought it up or agreed with it if/when they got a little further along reading what I have.

    The good news is that I've actually been putting some 'voice' into my recent edit--it's just that being so close to it, and being confused about all this, I hadn't even realized I was doing it. It would take too long to explain the evidence of this, but I think this is what is happening. This problem isn't licked yet, but I think I see a way forward.

    A great point from Skip and Penpilot--stories outside your usual fare, and especially poorly done stories, can often provide a great look into story mechanics. It's easier to see all the machinery when little effort has been made to house it in some proper coverings.
     
  18. Helen

    Helen Mystagogue

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    It's not necessarily about adding quirkiness or flaws.

    Give the character a belief. Off the top of my head, the most recent example I can think of is Ryan Gosling in La La Land; he says "when you have an opportunity like this, you have to grab it with both hands." That's the sort of thing that gives that character his voice.
     
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  19. scribbler

    scribbler Apprentice

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    In a situation like that you should push his limits. Put him in a totally irrational situation and see how he fares. Maybe part of his character growth is to let go of some of that boring normality. There is a character named Michael in the Dresden Files. It was really compelling to read about a moral, righteous character among so many anti-heroes. You could also surround him with a more colorful counterpart. It could be his wife who is a little more irrational and they serve to balance each other.
     
  20. bdcharles

    bdcharles Journeyman

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    Well if it is a learning novel, then you have to put your learnings into practise now, not just in the next WIP. There are options, though some are more workable than others. He could become the villain, but that would be a significant rewrite for you - not unachievable though; and your good guy, your real main, may come through yet. Failing that, write some situations for him - doesn't have to make it in to your main story - that shake him up a little. To you, he must be real. If you had a friend like that, what would you do to give him a little bit of backbone or character? Write a scene where you take him somewhere out of his comfort zone - a war, a regional gala, a jail, a desert island, a fantastic forest - and make him suffer through it. Learn about him. You have to get to know him better, and you can do that, just as you can with real people, through shared experiences. Good luck :)
     
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