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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Character & voice 
9th-Jan-2009 01:44 pm
tr: mole
Justine has a lovely post (I mistyped "lively," which is also apropos) on characterization. Mostly I want to say, What she said! particularly with regards to the part about no two writers being the same. If you're starting, try everything. If it doesn't work, you don't have to do it again.

I once bailed on a characterization workshop deliasherman was doing at WisCon because the first exercise was something along the lines of "pretend to be your character and let the person sitting next to you interview you." Seriously, I got up and fled the room as if Delia had said, "We're about to release the mutant zombie polar bears, and oh by the way they haven't been fed since noon on Tuesday." With the racing heart and the panic.

That technique obviously does not work for me--at least in part due to long-standing Fourth Wall Issues, as in, Please do not fuck with the fourth wall. I need it. and in part due to equally long-standing First Day Of Class Icebreaker Issues--but that doesn't mean it's a bad technique, any more than my complete and utter FAIL in the face of it means I'm a bad writer.

But I also thought I might chime in on the question about voice:
I was wondering whether there is anything in particular you do when developing the voice of your character (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything you do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

Because that is a salient feature of my work, and it is something I work hard on (see for evidence this post about the evolution of Mildmay's voice). And it's also a question that's damnably hard to answer. Because I do not, in general, "hear" my characters in my head, but at the same time, I do.

Yes, clear as mud, Mole, thanks.

Let's try that again. My characters do not talk to me. (Possibly as part of those Fourth Wall Issues, I am highly suspicious of and actually kind of squicked by any rubric for talking about writing that either believes or pretends to believe that the characters have independent existences and/or autonomy. Unless you follow all the way to the logical conclusion à la The Dark Half or "Secret Window, Secret Garden," in which case you have a whole new crop of problems, and I only hope you survive them.) I do sometimes get a line of prose in my head that seems to have floated up full-formed from the underconscious, like the answers in a Magic-8 Ball, and those can often be attributed to a specific voice. But that's not the same thing, either. (Although even I succumb to the short hand of saying things like, "Booth gave me an opening sentence today.") So I don't hear them in the way I hear actual voices.

But at the same time, I do have to hear them. A lot of how prose works for me is rhythm. Each character's voice has (or should have, anyway) a distinctive rhythm; I struggled a lot with Mehitabel in The Mirador and Kay in Corambis, trying to find their rhythms. A sentence should sound different, depending on which character says it, even if you don't have the dramatic differences imposed by a class-based dialect like Mildmay's. There's also differences in what information a character will choose to convey, what aspects of a situation he or she notices. For instance:

It snowed last night, rather a lot, and in a bit I'm going to have to go out and shovel. If I were writing about it in Felix's voice, I might remark on how strange it makes the topography of the neighborhood, but mostly I'd be bitching about how much work it is, and how cold and wet, and why don't we make enough money to hire someone to do it? (Also, notice that sentence isn't in Felix's voice, because Felix wouldn't use the word "bitch".) If I were writing about it in Mildmay's voice, I'd definitely talk about how weird it makes everything look, but I'd also tell you about a story I heard once about a guy who got lost in a blizzard and was rescued by a polar bear who was really an explorer under an enchantment and how they got the enchantment broken. I probably wouldn't mention the work part of it at all, unless I'm noticing that Felix forgot to say thank you. Again. And if I'm writing in Booth's voice, I describe the harsh sound the shovel makes against the sidewalk and count with painful, meticulous honesty, how many times I fall into the snow. (In my own voice? I bitch about how out of shape I am and notice the paths the feralistas have made in the snow.)

So that's how it works for me. It's part word choice and part rhythm (Mildmay's sentences are shorter and choppier than Felix's or Booth's, and while Felix is fond of rhetoric, his sentences are never as convoluted and Victorian as Booth's are) and part which details you emphasize. The important thing, I think, is that it has to matter whose eyes we're seeing through: the reasons that it matters are where you'll find the voice.
9th-Jan-2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
My favorite characters in role-playing games are the ones who develop enough that they surprise me; I don’t see them as having independent existence, but they are effectively a different process I can run on my own personal wetware. They don’t run unless I explicitly switch into their mindset, but when I do, they sometimes make different use of my cognitive resources and have insights and reactions that I wouldn’t.
9th-Jan-2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
Dude, I clicked over here to comment and thought, "wait, what? I've commented already?"

No, I haven't. But I applaud your taste in icons. ^_^

Edited to say that I agree, btw. Not all game characters come together in that fashion for me, but the ones that do feel rather like that.

Edited at 2009-01-09 09:10 pm (UTC)
9th-Jan-2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
I'm one of those people who chats to their characters on a daily basis, so when the teacher gave us the assignment of coming in dressed up as one of our characters, this wasn't the main problem. The problem was that I currently had two characters, an Auschwitz inmate, and an SS guard. How the hell was I going to pull that off? The teacher was not happy.
9th-Jan-2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
I actually get physically queasy when people talk about their characters as if they are independent and sentient beings. So I guess that it's lucky those conversations usually take place online.
9th-Jan-2009 09:21 pm (UTC)
I'll use my LARPing icon instead of my general gaming one so my comments won't blur together with slothman's. :-)

the first exercise was something along the lines of "pretend to be your character and let the person sitting next to you interview you." Seriously, I got up and fled the room as if Delia had said, "We're about to release the mutant zombie polar bears, and oh by the way they haven't been fed since noon on Tuesday."

The problem I always have with this idea is, why in the name of all that's holy is my character sitting there being interviewed? Somebody once wanted to do a project on live-action gaming that involved some of the players coming and talking to people "in character," and I ran screaming from that one, too. Not because playing the character was a frightening idea, but because I simply cannot divorce my characters, be they from games or fiction, from their narrative context. The few times I've managed it, for promotional interviews, I've had to work out my own personal justification for why that conversation is happening to begin with -- and that was all done as text, not performance. I don't know if I could play any of my fiction characters live. Not without other people playing the rest of the story's cast, and then I'd be flipping out because THEY'RE DOIN IT RONG.

But -- and here's the thing I need to learn to port over -- I know that I've done a much better job distinguishing my character voices in games than in fiction. Ree was vulgar, she swore a lot, she knew what the fancy words meant but didn't see any reason to use them most of the time. Fionnuala would never let a bad word pass her lips, and she dealt with her congenital inability to tell the truth by speaking as if this were the best of all possible worlds. Sess used all the words Ree didn't and used them in vast, run-on quantities (which turns out to be remarkably hard to do on demand).

One of these days I'll adapt that performative knack into my fiction. Then I'll really be in business.
9th-Jan-2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
Given my Fourth Wall Issues, I do not RPG, neither do I LARP. But I'm fascinated by them. So thank you!

And, yes, what you describe doing with your gaming characters sounds very much like the way I develop first person narrators.
9th-Jan-2009 09:24 pm (UTC)

I am totally stealing this word.
9th-Jan-2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
Oh please do!
9th-Jan-2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
My characters talk to me, particularly if I ignore them for too long. But I am always aware that it is some imaginative portion of my brain providing the commentary. I have held imaginary conversations with (real) people in my brain for so very long a time that it just seems obvious and natural to do it with fictional characters as well. I'm providing both sides of the conversation in both cases and I know it. One of my lovers once told me I had the most iron grip on reality he had ever seen. He did not mean this as a compliment but I took it as one. Yeah, that realtionship ended badly. REALLY badly.

9th-Jan-2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
The well-developed voices of your characters is what made reading the Melusine etc. books so enjoyable for me. I 'heard' Mildmay as a gravelly baritone and Felix as a slightly nasal Uppah Class Brit. Once I began to hear them, I always knew who was speaking and it...fit. I don't mean just that aspect of the voice, but... oh damn. I'm not expressing myself entirely well, sorry. Anyway, *what you said* - really worked for me and I can't wait to read more.
9th-Jan-2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
Felix isn't British, but he does sound like Jeremy Brett. You're spot on about Mildmay, though.
9th-Jan-2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
I do the thing that makes everyone squick, and say things like a character is being difficult or being particularly obliging, but don't mean that I think they're real people. It's like you said, that the phrasing is a kind of shorthand, and what I really mean is that I can or can't get into the correct headspace to write them at that particular moment.

My personal opinion is that if a character "writes themselves" it means that your subconscious is doing its job, but that doesn't mean the character is right. Laurel K Hamilton said in an interview once that she let Anita Blake write herself, and look how that turned out.
9th-Jan-2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
There really is a reason the conscious self is running the ship. Really.
9th-Jan-2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
I thought I was the only person in the world squicked by long interviews between writers and characters (especially when there is much mutual admiration going on.)
9th-Jan-2009 10:54 pm (UTC)
No, it's not just you.
9th-Jan-2009 10:14 pm (UTC)
"We're about to release the mutant zombie polar bears, and oh by the way they haven't been fed since noon on Tuesday."

Poor Polar Bears. Here, have a cookie. *pets polar bears*

Seriously though -- this was very interesting to read, and it helped me understand voice a bit better, so thank you. And if it helps, I found that Mildmay and Felix's boices are (in particular) very distinctive. By the time I was half-way through Mélusine, I could hear them both very strongly in my mind. Even now, when something startles or surprises me, I can hear Mildmay very clearly -- so clearly that I sometimes repeat his "Well, fuck me sideways..." or even talk back... ;) I'll leave you to decide which response gets me the weird looks.
9th-Jan-2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
I tend towards "sacred bleeding fuck", mainly because I think it's a great swear, but also because my bf thinks it's hilarious. I don't tend to use it in company though. *g*

The voices are definitely distinctive, and get the characters across so well. Once, I was trapped on a train between stations with people who wanted to talk about it. I was reading The Virtu at the time and, being the socially awkward creature I am, coped by "borrowing" all the fake charm I could and wearing it like a coat.
9th-Jan-2009 10:17 pm (UTC)
Please do not fuck with the fourth wall. I need it.

I'm guessing you don't watch Boston Legal.

9th-Jan-2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
I also have trouble with that interview thing, but I think it's mostly because my characters tend to grow in an egg of delicate avoidance. My benchmark for when a character is ready to cook with (heh) is when I can pin down what it is they are avoiding telling me about; what makes them ashamed or uncomfortable or afraid.

They sure as hell aren't talking to anyone else.

(All for values of characters talking that are shorthand for the subconscious process of me figuring out the left hand from the right.)
9th-Jan-2009 10:36 pm (UTC)
I don't object to it as a shorthand because there isn't any better way to talk about some of this stuff. I just like to remember that it is a shorthand and not, you know, real. I love my imaginary people dearly, but they are imaginary.
9th-Jan-2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
If I'd been at that workshop with you, we would probably have jammed in the door on the way out. *gibber*

Character voices do not come out of the mouth, for me. They come out of the fingers.

I am a total hapless sucker for Booth's voice. Just so you know.

9th-Jan-2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you! (I admit, I love writing him because where else am I going to get away with sentences like that?)
10th-Jan-2009 02:44 am (UTC)
I've never had a character 'speak to me' without having to put myself in a certain place and dredging up words and then going back and editing and etc etc. That being said, I've always been particularly jealous of people who do have this happen to them. I talk to several of them; no, they don't think the character is real or alive inside their head. It's just an automatic response to knowing their character. Even then, they still occasionally tend to get minor details 'wrong' or off and go back to fix them.

Likewise, RP (I've never done LARP, but from what's described here, I sort of want to) has actually helped me immensely as a writer. It's a lot easier to get in the 'mode' of a characters voice and I have to edit a lot less until things seem right, to me.
10th-Jan-2009 02:50 am (UTC)
Oh, it's so nice to know it's not just me! I have never been able to do those sorts of writing exercises, or even to imagine "talking" to my characters -- I am acutely aware that my fictional people are fictional, and crossing them over into our world breaks the illusion. I just can't think that way; it's a very fundamental violation of worldbuilding for me.

Your character voices are incredibly well-done, though; Mildmay, in fact, is so vivid that I find it difficult to write anything for a day or two after reading him, because his phrasing creeps subtly into my own word choices.
10th-Jan-2009 03:45 am (UTC)
My characters sometimes tell me things. They can be very opinionated, in fact. It doesn't mean I think they are real, and I think I'd be uneasy trying to let anyone interview me as them. That would be weird, both because I would feel like a total idiot, unable to pull off the voice, mannerisms and looks that I have invested in that character, and because I can't talk. I turn completely inarticulate trying to describe characters or plots or writing.

In a way, though, I guess I do treat my characters like real people. In the same way I make assumptions about what a friend or an acquaintance would do or say based on what I know about them, I also make assumptions about what my characters would do or say in any given situation. The bunch of neurons dedicated to keeping up with what I think that person would say or do fires, and it's like having them talk to me. Sometimes what they 'say' is surprising at first, but if I work through it, I can usually suss out the underlying motivation.
12th-Jan-2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
What you said.

I have become quite defensive about "hearing" my characters talk in my head and about my characters insisting on doing or refusing to do X or to behave in X way, because my not-a-writer spouse -- a very, very rational person in most ways -- so clearly regards this as crazy talk. Of course I hear them; of course I know what their voices sound like, and what sorts of vocabulary they use, and whether or not they can carry a tune, just as I need to know whether they're self-conscious about being very tall or have a habit of talking to themselves or are secretly sorry they didn't listen to their mothers. (And -- I'm not sure whether this will make me sound less crazy or more crazy -- when I read other people's books I generally hear the voices of their characters in my head, too, and quite a number of them feel thoroughly real to me.) I can't, and have never been able to, see people or places or things in my head, but I can hear 'em like nobody's business.

Of course I invented them, but that doesn't mean I retain control of them forever. I don't just let them write themselves (or, if this does happen, let them go merrily along unedited -- that way lie reams and reams of unnecessary infodump), but neither can I make them do things that it is not in their nature to do. Sometimes I just get irretrievably stuck until my back-brain throws up a different direction for things to go; other times I can write it, but can't make it not suck, and end up throwing it away.

Sure, it's shorthand, or a metaphor, but that is what it feels like to me. Or, to put it another way, I know they're not real, but I'm not always sure they know it.
10th-Jan-2009 05:26 am (UTC)

My characters are independent and sentient beings.

The fact that they only exist as mirror-neuron generated simulations in a virtual reality in my head has absolutely no bearing on that fact. I have an entire neurological architecture that's designed to do *just that,* and since I'm trying to create the illusion in the reader that they are independent and sentient beings, by triggering that same neurological architecture in them, I'm not sure why it should be a problem?
10th-Jan-2009 06:12 am (UTC)
Well, there's no reason it should be a problem for you.
11th-Jan-2009 02:30 am (UTC)
To the question-it depends which book I'm working on

One book the words just come to match ~scenes~ that play out in my head, not characters' voices or personalities. I'm not sure how it ended up that way, but there it is.

In my other book, my main character is a definite presence. Writer block is not a problem-getting sleep is. My main character is in modern urban fantasy scape, but she makes it known when its time to write more of her story. She doesn't say anything, but once I see her in my head the words come. I suppose she could be more obvious about it; she could come armed with a spear and poke it in my direction.

Hmmm...that did sound sort of split personality-esque didn't it? O.o

Oh, and I'd have run away from such an interview to, if only because I wouldn't have the slightest thing to say. As for the actual voice on the page...I've never really had to work hard on that, different tones for different characters have always come pretty easy for me. I suspect this fact is due to having an ear for pitch-I'm one of the few people you know who, when singing along with the song on the radio, actually sings perfect pitch and key the whole length.
11th-Jan-2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
So pretty! So helpful:)We like, thankyou!
11th-Jan-2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
I'm way late in chiming in on this, but I wanted to say something since I'm really glad you posted it. Mostly because my characters don't really talk to me, and I would have a lot of trouble having someone interview me "in character" and... yeah. It's nice to have more reassurance that the way I do it is OK, especially since I really admire the voice/characters in your work.
12th-Jan-2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting - do you mind if I link to it in meta_writer? Thanks :)
12th-Jan-2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
I don't mind at all.
13th-Jan-2009 09:21 am (UTC)
Hi it's Tim here, ducking over from Justine's blog to thank you for your post. It really does well at answering the (ridiculously difficult) question I put forward! Thank you!
13th-Jan-2009 08:26 pm (UTC)
Tim, you're very welcome!
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