Posted On April 10, 2015 by Print This Post

Part 1 – What is Voice, and Why Does it Matter? by Ed Gaffney

The full title of Ed Gaffney‘s post is “The Voice (and I’m not talking about the TV show): How to Find, Become Inspired By and Write Distinctive Voices for Your Characters.” Discover why voice is an important tool in building characters, and learn how to use it. Ed will be back to bring us Part 2 of this post on June 3rd.

Part 1 – What is Voice, and Why Does it Matter?

Before I start in with how important voice is in building a character, I want to share an example of what I’m talking about. This is a brilliant bit of writing that I love (and not just because my wife, Suz Brockmann, was the author). It also happens to be an outstanding example of how to differentiate characters through voice.

In this scene, out, gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy confronts US Navy SEAL Lt. Sam Starrett about Sam’s relationship with Jules’s FBI partner, Alyssa Locke. (Warning – the f-bombs fly thick and fast in this one.)

*****

Sam didn’t stop eating. He just sat there, at his special table. In his special seat. Shoveling pasta that tasted like crap into his mouth.

Giving the world a great big go away message with his glower and his body language.

But Jules didn’t go anywhere. He just stood there, obviously waiting for Sam to look up at him. Well, fuck it. Sam wasn’t going to.

So Jules sat down. Sam had to give him credit – the little fruit had balls.

“This has got to stop,” Jules said quietly. “Wasn’t Washington enough for you?”

Well, now. Wasn’t that the ultimate in irony? Alyssa Locke had warned Sam not to tell anyone about the night they’d spent together in Washington, DC. She’d nearly threatened him with bodily harm over it. And he hadn’t told a soul.

But apparently she’d turned around and spilled the whole sorry-assed tail to her swishy little partner.

. . .

Jules sighed. “I know you probably think I’m the last person to judge anyone in terms of what turns them on, but this sadomasochistic thing you’ve got going with Alyssa is killing her. Now, maybe that’s part of the game to you, but—”

Sam put down his fork. “You think I like it? Hooking up with her once every six months? Only to have her hate me again in the morning? Fuck you – she’s the fucking masochist!”

Jules was startled. “But she said . . . ”

Sam lowered his voice. “She gets drunk so she’s got an excuse to get down with me. Then she comes to my door and it’s my fault when I don’t turn her away? Fuck you twice.”

Jules narrowed his eyes. “You know, the bad language might be part of the problem. I can see how that might be off-putting to someone like – ”

“Yeah, how well do you know her, anyway?” Sam said. “It makes her laugh, if you want to know the truth. Jesus, when she’s drunk, she relaxes enough to let herself like me. It’s the rest of the time that . . . ” He shook his head. “Fuck.”

“What?” Jules persisted.

“Just leave me the fuck alone.”

“It’s the rest of the time that what?” Jules asked.

Sam tried to eat. Now it tasted like cold crap.

“She likes you when she’s drunk, but it’s the rest of the time that what?” Jules would not let go of it. “The rest of the time, as in when she’s sober?”

Sam set down the fork very carefully, instead of throwing it across the room. Or at Jules, who simply would not let this rest. “Look, she sobers up, and it’s like she . . . she . . . fuck! She instantly forgets who I am. Sobered up, she can’t see past her own expectations, all right? She thinks I’m some redneck asshole, so, yeah, okay, I play the part. Jesus.” He glared at Jules. “She thinks she knows me, but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected me. How the fuck do you fight that?”

Jules laughed. “Well, gee. I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.”

Sam realized what he’d just said and who he’d just said it to.

As a gay man, Jules had spent most of his life prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected by most of society.

Including Sam.

“Ah, fuck.” He couldn’t hold the other man’s gaze.

Fuck is kind of like your aloha, right?” Jules said. “It means hello and good-bye and thank you and – in this case – I’m sorry?”

Sam had to laugh at that. “I am sorry,” he managed to say. “You’re . . . okay.”

“Whew,” Jules said. “I was worried about myself for a minute there.”

(From Over the Edge, by Suzanne Brockmann.)

As lovers of romance, we all know how important it is to create realistic characters. If readers don’t connect with the people in the story we’re telling, they’re going to put the book down. It’s as simple as that. And that’s because it’s virtually impossible to care what happens to someone if you don’t believe the person is realistic. Or if you don’t like or relate to the person. Of if you don’t know the person.

But this isn’t exactly news. Writers — especially romance writers – are painfully aware of the fact that if their characters don’t work, their book doesn’t work. And that’s why we spend so much time building our characters. Height, weight, age, gender, sexual orientation. Eye color, hair color, skin color. Place of birth, parents, children, siblings, marital status. Education, employment. Hopes, dreams, values, beliefs. Likes, dislikes. Strengths, weaknesses, fears.

But one of the most overlooked elements in character — at least from my point of view — is voice. What do your characters sound like? It’s something they reveal almost every time they show up on a page, and therefore it’s an incredibly powerful tool when populating the world you are building. And yet, it’s very often ignored.

Here’s an exercise you can use to help analyze whether you’re using the voices of your characters well. Take a scene from one of your stories, and make a list of what each character says. Then compare the lists. Are they truly distinct? If not, you are not only passing up a huge opportunity to help give your characters the kind of nuance and color we all hope to achieve as writers, but you also risk making your characters less realistic. Because people don’t all sound alike. So there’s no reason in the world why your characters should all sound alike.

over the edge

Let’s do that exercise with Suz’s characters from the scene from Over the Edge. Here are Jules’s lines:

-This has got to stop. Wasn’t Washington enough for you?

-I know you probably think I’m the last person to judge anyone in terms of what turns them on, but this sadomasochistic thing you’ve got going with Alyssa is killing her. Now, maybe that’s part of the game to you, but—

-But she said . . .

– You know, the bad language might be part of the problem. I can see how that might be off-putting to someone like –

-What?

-It’s the rest of the time that what?

-She likes you when she’s drunk, but it’s the rest of the time that what? The rest of the time, as in when she’s sober?

-Well, gee. I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.

Fuck is kind of like your aloha, right? It means hello and good-bye and thank you and – in this case – I’m sorry?

-Whew. I was worried about myself for a minute there.

And here are Sam’s lines:

-You think I like it? Hooking up with her once every six months? Only to have her hate me again in the morning? Fuck you – she’s the fucking masochist!

– She gets drunk so she’s got an excuse to get down with me. Then she comes to my door and it’s my fault when I don’t turn her away? Fuck you twice.

-Yeah, how well do you know her, anyway? It makes her laugh, if you want to know the truth. Jesus, when she’s drunk, she relaxes enough to let herself like me. It’s the rest of the time that . . . Fuck.

– Just leave me the fuck alone.

-Look, she sobers up, and it’s like she . . . she . . . fuck! She instantly forgets who I am. Sobered up, she can’t see past her own expectations, all right? She thinks I’m some redneck asshole, so, yeah, okay, I play the part. Jesus. She thinks she knows me, but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected me. How the fuck do you fight that?

-Ah, fuck.

-I am sorry. You’re . . . okay.

Isn’t it interesting how different the two people sound? Now check this out. I’m going to list a few lines from different scenes in the book. They are either Sam’s or Jules’s. Watch how easy it is to tell the difference.

-It’s my fucking room.

-Limited eye contact last time we met. But a boy can dream, can’t he?

-Jesus. I’ve got to do the right thing.

-Is there a chance that’s why we’re along for this ride?

The first and the third lines are Sam’s. The second and fourth are Jules’s. Wasn’t that easy? And you know what? It should be easy. Because real people don’t all sound alike. And neither should the people in your books. When you go to the trouble to create a straight, six-foot-four inch Navy SEAL from Texas hopelessly in love with a woman who only seems to like him when she’s drunk, why in the world would you make him sound like a five-foot-six inch gay FBI agent from the Northeast who looks like he might have joined law enforcement after a successful career in a boy band? The answer is: you wouldn’t. Sam is a passionate guy, in a very stressful moment in his life. So he sounds like you’d expect – he throws f-bombs around like confetti, and whenever he speaks, italics and exclamation points are all over the place. But Jules? He’s a very smart man, in a much less precarious point in his life than Sam. He’s curious about his world, and has a great sense of humor. So when he speaks, he asks a ton of questions, and often reacts to the answers with killer wit.

That’s all I have time for in this blog – in part two, I’ll get into how I find inspiration for character voices, and tell you a fun story about where I discovered the voice for the lead in my next feature film, Russian Doll.

Russian+Kickstarter+Photo+26

But before I go, I want to leave you with this question:

What is one of your favorite lines of dialogue, and describe (briefly) the character who says it.

Join us Monday, April 13: How to Promote Your Book like a Boss on Facebook with Jill Bennett

***

Bio:

IMG_8618

Ed Gaffney (www.edgaffney.com) is a recovering criminal appeals attorney who is now a critically acclaimed author and EDGAR Award finalist, as well as an award-winning independent film writer and producer.  He is currently in pre-production for his next film, a thriller called Russian Doll, that will shoot this summer. (Logline: He splits his time between Florida and Massachusetts with his wife, New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann, and their two dogs, Dexter and Little Joe.

 

Ed’s website: www.edgaffney.com

 

Russian Doll website: www.russiandollthemovie.com

 

Russian Doll facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RussianDollTheMovie?fref=ts

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Discussion

12 Responses to “Part 1 – What is Voice, and Why Does it Matter? by Ed Gaffney”

  1. Thanks so much for this fabulous post, Ed! When I think about “voice” I usually picture the author’s voice. OVER THE EDGE is a favorite of mine, so it’s very easy to picture Sam and Jules and to distinguish between their dialogue. This exercise is really helpful!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 10, 2015, 9:06 am
  2. And thank you, Becke, for inviting me to contribute! It’s always a blast to write these things for Romance U. 🙂

    Posted by Ed Gaffney | April 10, 2015, 9:50 am
  3. And that point you raise regarding “voice” is really good. Narrative voice (the author’s voice) is also a vital component of any book. But I absolutely LOVE when an author takes the time to make their characters’ voices interesting and different. For me, it really helps bring everything in the story to life.

    Posted by Ed Gaffney | April 10, 2015, 9:54 am
  4. Now that I think about it, Ed, I can most easily distinguish between characters and their voices when I know them from TV or film rather than from books. I CAN think of some from books – like the Troubleshooters, of course. But I can come up with a lot more from TV – shows like Scorpion, NCIS and a British series called New Tricks.

    This will be a huge help – I had been thinking about this when I realized I could identify the characters on Scorpion by their individual quirks even though the show hasn’t been on very long. Definitely a goal to strive for in writing – I have some revisions waiting for me!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 10, 2015, 10:23 am
  5. Great post,
    I think that’s one of Suzanne’s big talents, writing distinctive voices. She does so well with it, you can almost see the person saying the words. I didn’t pick a line, too hard to do, but I will pick a character whose personality shines in her books: Izzy Zanella.
    For a tall, not especially handsome man, (sorry Izz)he is charismatic on the page. Very easy to tell Izzy’s speech patterns, and of course his singing voice 🙂
    Thanks Ed, saving this for future reference.
    Jacquie Biggar

    Posted by Jacquie Biggar | April 10, 2015, 11:09 am
  6. And Izzy sings! Isn’t that cool!?!!! (By the way, for those of you that write characters that sing, there are REALLY strict rules about using song lyrics (written by others) in your book.)

    Another interesting thing about Suz’s books is her choice to use deep point of view for her narrative voice. What this does is give the reader even more of an opportunity to “hear” the voices of her characters, because each scene is essentially told from one character’s point of view.

    Brilliant!

    Posted by Ed Gaffney | April 10, 2015, 11:41 am
  7. I agree – Izzy is a standout! Of course, all the characters are standouts in their own way. I think it’s a real gift to be able to write such a full cast of characters, and make them all so clearly defined.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 10, 2015, 4:15 pm
  8. That should have said, “All the Troubleshooters characters…”

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 10, 2015, 4:16 pm
  9. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today, Ed. I’m very excited to read Part 2!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 10, 2015, 9:58 pm
  10. Thanks for having me, Becke! Looking forward to hanging out again!

    Posted by Ed Gaffney | April 11, 2015, 6:12 am

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