Sunday, June 8, 2014

Character Voice

During my dialog trilogy I tapped a couple of times into character voice. So, I thought it might be a good time to pick it up in a own post.

You can define character voice as the way a character speaks. In my opinion, this definition is too narrow. In communication, the vast majority is based on non-verbal or vocal elements. I like to see character voice on a broader angle and include the way a character expresses himself in general; how he acts, his underlying emotions, his reactions and ultimately his decisions. Let me go into more into detail.

Usually I come up with a person I know or I've observed. I'll turn 40 this year and I've seen many people, good and bad, nasty and nice. Also I like to observe people and their behavior, and one day I might take one of them as basis for a character.

I haven't reached the situation where this doesn't work, but I might someday - I haven't written yet about a psychopath or somebody with a specific mania or obsession. Then I might reach a limitation and I would have to do some more research. I know of writers who had spent months in prison, with drug addicts or in a mental home simply in order to understand their main character.

There is one risk with my approach. Don't use characters you've seen on TV or in films. They might be real to you, but taking them you run the risk to create a character which is too much of a stereotype. I see this sometimes in books with cops or military. If you are not sure about one of your main characters, try to find somebody who is familiar with the topic, a cop, a psychiatrist, a social worker - usually they are very helpful.

Most of the time I know the underlying character and I start writing. Over time I have to take decisions that refine the character, based on the following background items:

  • Personality: There are several personality models available in order to explain human behavior, e.g. the big 5 model, the four temperament model or Carl Jung's personality types. I usually go with the five temperament model from the Arno Profile System (sanguine, supine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric). It is fairly simple and easily applicable.

    Be cautious, when establishing the basic personality type of your characters. Even if you have a development of a character over time, the personality usually doesn't change. However, it is the exception that proves the rule; there are experiences or incidents that can lead to a personality change, for example a brain injury.

  • Origin (time and place): Somebody from Germany, born in 1939 and stayed there will act differently from a German that emigrated to the US in 1939 at an age of 5. The experience of war changes the behavior of a person. Additionally, there is a genetic code embedded in societies, which impacts the character's voice. Somebody who grew up after a society went through a crisis (lost war, great depression, hyper inflation) will be impacted by the way his surroundings react, even though he actually didn't live during the time the crisis hit the society.

  • Origin (social class): My favorite example is The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby's fixation on Daisy can be explained by his desire to belong to the upperclass. In German we say one can not lie where one's cradle stood.

  • Education: A person acts/reacts/talks differently based on his education. No or very limited access to education vs. university degree, impacts vocabulary, grammar, reasoning etc. In my current novel one of my main characters is a smart person with a basic education when he leaves his home town and over time with his growing experience his understanding of the world and his reasoning changes. This change is reflected in his vocabulary, his reasoning and last but not least his self-esteem and confidence.

  • Experience/lived through: The last example about education shows an important piece - a character's voice is not set in stone, it develops over time based on several factors. One of these factors is experience or extreme situation a person went through.
    Examples? I always say an adolescent or young man believes in his own immortality. The whole life is still ahead and nothing to loose triggers a very low risk awareness, until this one experience or incident that changes everything. It might be something like an irreversible injury like or simply a situation that could have gone terribly wrong. Something that planted the seed of fear for one's own life. This experience changes everything and I am sure most of you know of what I'm talking. 

    When it comes to a character, you can use experience to explain why a protagonist acts out of character. You can also build a whole plot and conflict on experience. Drag them through hell to find out how they are when they come out again. A better man? Worse?

  • Situation: My last point is also the most fluid or unstable one, but situation has a great impact on how a person act, reacts or speaks. One model to be considered is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A protagonist that is in a life threatening situation (aka who fears for his life) would not go into a debate about the meaning of life. Or a society threatened by an asymmetric war on own grounds (safety) might very well be willing to sacrifice certain rights of individuals (self actualization). Sounds familiar? 
    Additionally, when a major incident happens to the the five stages of grief kick-in; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These stages can take seconds, minutes or weeks. You can easily build in this model into the reaction of your protagonist in order to increase tension.

    Or you let a character be stuck in one of the stages. I learned this in military; people who are stuck in one of the stages react completely unreasonable. They walk out of the trench in the midst of artillery fire and play with stones, like a little kid or when somebody who sees an accident car vs. motorcycle and the first thing he does is put up the motorcycle not paying attention to the insured driver. 

Now I tapped into the huge topic of character voice, impossible to beat it down in one post. Therefore - to be continued.

On word to dialect or accent at the end. Well, actually two - first, only use it when it seems really necessary for a character. Second, if you haven't grown up with this dialect or accent, stay away from it. The risk you have it wrong is far to high. 

Happy writing.

Your writer in a foreign land

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