Writing Secrets: How to fall in love with a character

 In How to write a book, Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

In my early twenties, I fell in love with Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Shapiro, the protagonist from his novel, Joshua Then and Now, and spent years searching for someone just like him, so I could marry him.

It was his voice that hooked me – that funny, irreverent, yet tender way of looking at the world and other people.

Last week, I was talking about memorable characters. I spoke about the importance of showing your character on the page. No-one remembers a character who has simply been explained to them.

But what I didn’t say was that voice can be one of the most important things you can develop, if you want your readers to share in their highs and lows, get to know and care about them. This is particularly important when the story is narrated through the consciousness of that character.

But what does voice consist of? Firstly, people sometimes have speech quirks. They might use a certain phrase habitually. But I’ve learnt that if you use a speech quirk more than twice or three times in a book, it will become a tic and will irritate the reader more than it will illuminate the character.

Voice also has to do with the words a character uses. Some characters are more educated than others. They might have a greater vocabulary. They may use gang jargon or a young person’s slang, like Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:

“Let’s go, chief,” old Maurice said. Then he gave me a big shove with his crumby hand. I damn near fell over on my can – he was a huge sonuvabitch. The next thing I knew, he and old Sunny were both in the room. They acted like they owned the damn place. Old Sunny sat down on the window sill. Old Maurice sat down in the big chair and loosened his collar and all – he was wearing this elevator operator’s uniform. Boy, was I nervous…

They might express things very precisely and clearly. Their thoughts flow logically:

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.  – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Or perhaps they speak in a rush of short sentences, in which thoughts fly this way and that:

Every day Mama said, You’re going to crack your head wide open, but no sir. I broke my arm instead. How I did it was spying on the African Communist Boy Scouts. Way up there in the tree I could see them but they couldn’t see me. The tree had green alligator pears that taste like nothing much. Not a one of us but Mama will eat them, and the only reason is she can remember how they tasted back home from the Piggly Wiggly with salt and Hellman’s mayonnaise. ‘Mayonnaise?’ I asked her. ‘What color was the jar?’ But she didn’t cry. Sometimes when I can’t remember things from Georgia, she’ll cry. –The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

But sometimes, like Joshua Shapiro, a character’s voice lies in a very particular way of looking at the world. And this is something I’ll explore more fully next week.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Take a closer look at the bad guys

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  • Alex

    Nice one, Jo-Anne.

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