Posted On June 3, 2015 by Print This Post

The Voice (and I’m not talking about the TV show): How to Find, Become Inspired By and Write Distinctive Voices for Your Characters by Ed Gaffney

Please welcome back ED GAFFNEY with Part 2 of the series on Voice he began in April

Part 2 – Inspiration, and How to Listen to Your Writing

In just a little less than a month, I’ll be on the set of an independent thriller I’m directing called Russian Doll. I wrote the screenplay, and I thought that telling you the story of where the lead character’s voice came from might help anyone interested in developing that aspect of their writing, especially those of you who write romance. Because even though I don’t write in your genre, I am a firm believer that every story in every genre lives and dies by how well its characters are drawn. And to me, voice is an often-overlooked — and potentially defining — character trait.


First, a little about the film itself. Russian Doll is a neo-noir crime thriller. The story begins when a young woman is abducted in the middle of a 911 call. Police Detective Viola Ames is assigned to the case, and her investigation into the woman’s disappearance leads her to a local theater company. When she questions the cast and crew of the play, she discovers that just about everyone involved in the production is trying to keep a secret from her. What she doesn’t know is that in that same group, a killer is hiding in plain sight. Planning the murder that the 911 call was intented to thwart.

Our goal is to have viewers on the edge of their seats from the opening scene, right up to an ending that we think will surprise everyone so completely that they will want to watch the movie all over again to see how they missed it the first time through.

From early on in the writing process, I had a good idea of where the storyline was going, and how the metaphor of a Russian doll (something contained within something larger) would run through the story. What I was a little less certain of, though, was the voice of the lead character. No matter how good a plot, my favorite stories – whether books or movies — are those in which I am invested in the characters. So I needed to feel like Viola had a voice that would connect with viewers. And for a time, her voice seemed undefined to me – it was lacking something.

When I get stuck as a writer – with plot, character, whatever – I reread my favorite books, or I watch my favorite movies or TV episodes. For me, this does two things: it inspires me to try to write something as good as (fill in the blank – J.D. Salinger, William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, whoever I’m reading or watching), and it also triggers memories of characters that I have kept with me forever. When I let my thoughts roam through the words, moments and voices of these admittedly fictional people that seem so real to me, I remember the years of excitement, joy, and entertainment they have given me. And I find myself striving to create characters that share a spark with them. Characters that can truly come to life for my readers and my viewers.

I already knew a lot about my main character: Viola Ames is about 30 years old. She’s a lesbian, widowed about two years before we meet her. She’s an excellent cop, but since her wife’s death, she uses alcohol to numb herself to the pain of her existence. When the movie begins, Viola’s life is little more than her job and drinking, and the two are on a collision course. She thinks that love will no longer be a part of her story, and she also thinks that she has stopped grieving the loss of her wife. She’s wrong about both things.

And when I took what I knew about Viola, and brought her into my thoughts as I spent time reading my favorite books, watching my favorite movies, and remembering my favorite characters, I found Viola evolving in the same direction as two of my favorites protagonists, both played by Humphrey Bogart: Frank McCloud, from Key Largo, and Rick Blaine, from Casablanca.

No kidding. I wanted Viola’s voice to have tones and colors similar to Humphrey Bogart.

To be clear — I didn’t want Humphrey Bogart, or any character that he played, in my movie. And not just because the man has been dead for over fifty years. He’s a man. And Viola Ames is a woman. And when Viola spoke, I certainly didn’t want to hear the strange, nasal voice of Humphrey Bogart.

What I really wanted was for my character to evoke the same things in me that I felt when Frank McCloud and Rick Blaine spoke in those classic movies. I wanted us to connect to Viola because of her courage to live on, in a seemingly hopeless situation, because she was just that tough.

(Funny aside. I believe that my favorite Humphrey Bogart line might be in my imagination. I would swear to you that Key Largo contains a moment where Frank McCloud and a young woman are taken captive by the bad guys. They are both tied up. The bad guys are interrogating the woman, and she doesn’t tell them what they want to hear. So one of the bad guys slaps her in the face. At which point, Bogart looks the bad guy dead in the eye, and says, “Now hit me.”

Despite the fact that Bogart is tied up, and the bad guys have all the guns, from that moment forward, there’s no question who has the upper hand. It’s brilliant writing, and brilliant acting.


I see it clear as day in my memory. And I. CAN’T. FIND. IT.

If anyone happens to know where to find that scene and that line, please let me know. I’m dying here. 🙂 )

Anyway, back to Russian Doll.

Once I let myself think of Viola as the spiritual sister of Bogart’s characters, her voice became clear. She was tough, and fearless. She spoke in short bursts and was quick to anger. She was brokenhearted, but refused to admit it. And yet, she managed to live on. And that is how, with a voice inspired by a long-dead actor of the wrong gender and generation, Viola got the final dimension she needed to become a thoroughly fleshed-out person. Here’s the way we describe her in the movie’s promotional material that we quoted in our recently successful Kickstarter campaign:

Imagine a beautiful but troubled police detective with the soul of Humphrey Bogart and the heart of a warrior, still grieving two years after the death of her wife.

Wait until you see her in action.  🙂

I’m sure there are dozens of ways to find the right voice for your characters, but this is one I’ve used more than once with success. It’s a little like casting your book or your movie before you write it, and then writing for the actor. Of course it’s not quite that literal, but when I think of it that way, it’s a little extra fun for me, and makes writing that much more enjoyable.


The question I’ll leave with you is this: What book have you read that created characters with such distinctive voices that you can hear them speak as you read?

On Friday, June 5, Athena Grayson presents “Launching Romance Into Space, New Horizons In Sci-Fi Romance”



Ed Gaffney

Ed Gaffney ( 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. 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:


Russian Doll website:


Russian Doll facebook page:

The Perfect Wedding DVD

perfect wedding

Co-written by married screenwriting team of New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann and EDGAR Award finalist Ed Gaffney, the charming romantic comedy THE PERFECT WEDDING debuts on DVD December 3rd from Wolfe Video. Gavin (Jason T. Gaffney) and Paul (Eric Aragon), two young gay men, meet and fall in love over a holiday weekend where family and friends are planning the wedding of Paul s sister. The problem is, Gavin is posing as the boyfriend of Paul s ex and the two find themselves in a classic comic quandary as they try to ignore their feelings. First time feature film Director Scott Gabriel s cast includes Eric Aragon (The Interview), Jason T. Gaffney (Jolly), Apolonia Davalos (Jolly), Brendan Griffin (The Nanny Diaries), Sal Rendino (Blue Collar Boys), Kristine Sutherland (TV s Buffy the Vampire Slayer ) and James Rebhorn (Independence Day, TV s White Collar ). BONUS FEATURES-Behind the Scenes Featurette, Interviews with Actors, Theatrical Trailer, More from Wolfe.


Touching and funny story of the many perfect ways that love can be expressed. –Sarasota Film FestivalInstead of preaching about marriage equality, The Perfect Wedding simply shows life in futuristic world where it s taken for granted. And that world looks pretty good. –Herald-Tribune Heartwarming… illustrating a fresh take on a modern family. –This Week in SarasotaHeartwarming… illustrating a fresh take on a modern family. –This Week in Sarasota



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16 Responses to “The Voice (and I’m not talking about the TV show): How to Find, Become Inspired By and Write Distinctive Voices for Your Characters by Ed Gaffney”

  1. yes yes yes – I’ve seen that movie in the past 12 months – I think. It’s just before he takes the bad guys out on the boat and they don;t come back…….. I remember that scene (i.e. near the end of the movie I believe)

    Posted by Donnamaie White | June 3, 2015, 1:02 am
  2. It’s so frustrating when you have a clear memory of something like this and no one else remembers it! That really resonates with me.

    I am so excited to see Russian Doll! When will it be available on DVD – something like autumn 2016?

    Congratulations – I saw you not only met but topped your Kickstarter goal. That’s awesome!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 3, 2015, 11:55 am
    • The schedule for the movie looks like this: we finish editing by the end of this year, and have it ready to premiere in 2016 at a festival. By the end of 2016 we hope that it will be available on DVD. Fingers crossed!!

      Posted by Ed Gaffney | June 3, 2015, 1:17 pm
  3. Are you working on any more mystery novels or are you going to stick with movies for the foreseeable future?

    Writing is such a solitary task – did the move to working with a team make writing and producing films more fun? Or was it hard to adjust to working as part of an ensemble?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 3, 2015, 12:00 pm
    • I am the oldest of eight kids, so working in a large group is not a problem for me. 🙂

      To tell you the truth, I like both the solitude of writing and the collaboration of filmmaking. So doing movies allows me to have my cake and eat it too. I write the scripts in tranquility, and then produce them in a hurricane. 🙂

      But I expect to go back to writing books (as well as writing more movies) in the future. Although right now, my focus is so narrow (Russian Doll Russian Doll Russian Doll) that it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. Ever.

      And whether producing films is fun, well, I guess I’d have to say that it’s fun a lot of the time. There are times when it is, um, the opposite of fun, but that’s the nature of big things with lots of people and lots of moving parts. In my experience, it’s well worth the minor negatives to achieve the greater positives.

      Posted by Ed Gaffney | June 3, 2015, 1:26 pm
      • I’m the oldest of five, and I thought THAT was a lot! 🙂 It’s true, growing up in a big family predisposes you to find normality in crowds and – in my case, anyway – noise! From the outside looking in, making movies does sound fun, but I’m sure it’s a lot of pressure, too. Still, it says a lot that you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and learned a whole new line of work. And it’s wonderful that you’ve made it a family affair!

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 3, 2015, 3:05 pm
        • And Russian Doll is going to be the biggest family affair yet! Not only is our son, Jason, going to play a major role as an actor, he’s going to co-direct with me. And our daughter, Melanie, is going to be in the lead role as Detective Viola Ames. And even one of my nieces is going to be in it, as Young Lena. It is so much fun to be so close to so many creative people !!!

          Posted by Ed Gaffney | June 4, 2015, 6:58 am
  4. Hi Ed,

    The description of Viola reminds me of Brenda Blythen’s character Vera. Not sure if you’re familiar with the Vera series, but Vera is a middle age detective in Northumberland. Her life is her work and as long as she’s working, she doesn’t have to think about her serious personal issues. It’s one of my favorite detective series.

    As for distinctive voices, my pick would be Auntie Mame. I have a tattered and much read copy of the book, and I’ve watched the film version of Auntie Mame more than twenty times. (Yes, I can recite lines.) I hear Rosalind Russell’s voice, but it’s Patrick Dennis’ genius wit that makes Mame a memorable character.

    When will Russian Doll release?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 3, 2015, 1:49 pm
    • Hi Jennifer!

      Auntie Mame is SUCH a great character! I remember seeing her first in the musical on stage, and I was absolutely stunned at how brave and funny she was. And even then, I realized how unusual it was for an older woman to have a lead role. (I was a little boy, but I remember thinking that was very cool.)

      The plan is for Russian Doll to be ready for festivals in 2016, and at the end of that year to be ready for DVD sales. We will keep you posted!!!

      Posted by Ed Gaffney | June 4, 2015, 6:56 am
  5. The first romances I read where the characters really came to life were Mary Stewart’s books, which I read as a teenager. Later I discovered Nora Roberts and Linda Howard, and then – ta-da! – a series called The Troubleshooters by Suzanne Brockmann. I became totally hooked – not only could I hear their voices, I could picture the way they walked. In some cases, I felt like I could probably pick up their scent in a crowd!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 3, 2015, 11:10 pm
  6. I so enjoyed your article and the comments. It’s fascinating to me how characters evolve. Some of that evolution is instinctive on the part of the author, some is shaped by the author.

    Best wishes for your film, and maybe you could come back and let us know how it went?


    Posted by Susanne | June 4, 2015, 7:31 am

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