How To Write Better Stories: Building A Characters’ Voice

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One of the things is worth pointing out about Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets – and this doesn’t particularly pertain to chapter 13, it’s basically constant throughout – is the unique voices of the characters.

When you are facing the challenges of writing for three or more characters, often your reader will  say “I can’t tell the difference between when one person is talking or the other it is.”

In other words,

they’re all you so they all sound like you.

Or they don’t sound different from each other.

One way to get around that is to give each of them are unique “voice.”

For example, the character Hermione is headstrong and smart, a very diligent student, and very quick to point out when Harry and Ron are about to break a rule. She is a rule follower. You could basically, after reading a few chapters of any of the books, write a very accurate description of her type of character.

Ron on the other hand, we learned about his background through things other people say about him and about things that he says about himself, his belongings aren’t very good because his parents don’t have a lot of money, and this bothers him. On the other hand, he has a voice: he is pretty smart and often sarcastic or funny. He will usually comment negatively or in a contrarian way to whatever Hermione is suggesting.

Harry is likable because he was innocent and was tortured by the Dursleys, but he also has a pretty good moral compass. He tends to do the right thing even if it means breaking a rule. He is a noble character. He is also somewhat quiet and is described as skinny, and he was bullied – so when he gets the chance to not be those things – to be a hero – it doesn’t go to his head. As opposed to other people like Malfoy, or Lockhart, who are constantly bragging about their virtues.

So a good exercise for you as a writer would be when you have your characters to kind of make them a little bit extreme in their positions.

Again, they are all you but they are not you. So one can be smart you and the other can be the funny you. One can be the angry you and one could be the asshole you.

When I started The Navigators, the opening scene had five characters conversing. Roger was constantly angry and constantly swearing. And he was the only one who was that way. So because he was, it was easy to know his voice.

That carried into the second chapter and kind of mellowed through the rest of the story but he was already established by then.

On the other hand, Missy is very smart and very polished and a little bit uncertain, so when she has to take charge later, it’s difficult for her and she doesn’t necessarily do it well all the time. But in the beginning, she is more innocent and asks more questions – questions the readers would have asked.

Peeky is basically a wimp and Barry is very very smart and the others naturally gravitate toward him so the reader does, too.

If you were to pull just one character’s lines out of the book and look at them together, it would almost look like a caricature.

Almost.

And it is because I wrote a good dialogue, and then by taking one step towards the angry or two steps towards the angry, that we know it’s Roger speaking without even being told. The same with adding one or two innocent elements to it or questioning elements to it, we know it’s Missy. If we have one or two big words, we know it’s Barry. And if we had an air of uncertainty to it, it becomes Peeky.

So by having your characters in your mind or having their characteristics written down on a Post-It notes stuck on your computer, you can constantly remember this guy always cusses. Or, this girl always asks things in a very soft way. And you will find that your characters very quickly have their own unique voices – that your reader will be able to follow and enjoy.

As I go on through these Harry Potter books, I like Harry’s virtue, but I really, really like Hermione’s resolute steadfastness, and Ron’s sarcasm. They are probably friends partly by necessity and also by choice. They enjoy each other’s company. But does anybody really think that Ron and Hermione would be friends if it weren’t for Harry? Probably not. I don’t think Hermione particularly likes Ron. But that just may be her or style, her mannerisms. She’s one of those stiff upper lip types and it’s rare that she lets her emotions get the better of her, like when she gave Harry a big hug when she thought he’d been in trouble. He didn’t much care for it and it was uncharacteristic for her – which made it all the more sentimental.

By making your character characters slightly into “caricatures,” but only slightly, you can really pull off an emotional upheaval the readers will find very satisfying.

And after I said all those things about Ron, now reading chapter 13 I’m starting to wonder if maybe he doesn’t have a thing for Hermione. He acts like he doesn’t like her and yet he seems a little bit jealous at the same time.

Hmmm…

And another mystery. A diary with no entries.

Or, since this entire thing is a mystery, are these clues? Because somewhere in between now and page 341, all the stuff is going to get tied together to make sense.

They keep talking about the person who opened the chamber of secrets got expelled from Hogwarts. The only other person they’ve mentioned getting expelled is Hagrid. So I have to wonder if Hagrid opened the chamber of secrets. There could’ve been other people who got expelled, I suppose, but they haven’t referenced them as much as they have Hagrid getting expelled.

And the empty, 50 year old diary Harry finds, the one with no entries, is a great little magical entity unto itself. A great little story.

This is where I realize how great an author Rowling truly is. Things fit.

Right about the time I read something, I say to myself, well, that’s about right. That fits there. Like you’re looking at a brick wall or maybe a stone wall, where every rock was cut by hand and fits just so to create the perfect rectangle of the wall, but when you look at each piece, each one is unique in itself and its own little shape – and it fits where it fits, not before and not after but only that one place. That’s kind of how the story works. There are so many neat little things in it that required a wealth of imagination to create – like a diary with disappearing ink that then writes back to you in disappearing ink – that it all reads as very smooth. Like, we just accept a talking hat and a diary that converses with you in disappearing ink. Because it’s that kind of world. And the rules in that world are unique unto themselves but Rowling knows them. We are learning them. But she knows them and she works within them.

Yes, it’s elements like these that I can imagine being a kid and reading this book, would just open your mind to a million possibilities.

Because if I read this chapter to my daughter tonight, tomorrow I could expect her prancing around the house for half the day with her little magic wand and making all kinds of magical incantations

and imagining diaries writing notes to her and flowers flying through the air and  glowing candles hovering all throughout her play area.

That’s a lot of fun. That’s a lot of magic to unleash into a child’s imagination, a lot of magic to conjure up from your own imagination if you wrote it, and a lot of fun to be reading as an adult and learning how to put together a story like this – and not just a magical story about a wizard boy, but a mystery with 50 little mysteries inside of it, wrapped around a fun adventure.

I like to think, to wonder, if you wrote a story about wizards or any sort of magic really, what would you have exist in that world? What kinds of devices? What kinds of laws and rules and whatnot?

I haven’t made any kind of a hard count but I think upwards of half of what Rowling refers to is stuff we have seen in pre-Harry Potter movies. A magic wand that, when you hold it and say certain words, makes something happen or sparks fly out of it that cause something to happen. We’ve seen that before in other movies. Potions – witches have been making potions in movies and books and Grimms’ fairy tales forever.

So she didn’t invent those things.

She did invent a bank where the tellers are goblins, but she didn’t invent banks or goblins.

She invented a wizarding school in a castle, but she didn’t invent wizards or castles. So she draws on the familiar things we do know from folklore and old stories, and then adds new – multiple new – layers and different ways for them to interact. Once you step into that world, whatever you care to come up with, becomes reality for that world. And that is a lot of fun. There really is no limit to what you can do there.

And I suppose that’s why there are six or more books…

An example of this is when Harry looks into the diary and finds himself kind of being sucked into it, through a window that allows his whole body to go through it and land on the other side. That is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or even the TV kid in Willy Wonka or the 1960’s TV show “Time Tunnel.”

On the down side, here’s another editing glitch for you:

Harry had never seen this man before.

“I’m sorry,” he said shakily.

Who is he? Harry or the man?

The last person referred to was “this man” so that’s who “he” is – except it’s not. It’s Harry. So it should have said: “I’m sorry,” Harry said shakily.

Again, I’m not going to really get somebody crap for something they wrote 20 years ago. Our writing requirements have changed. But when you read the book and see stuff like that, you need to know you can’t do it.

Still…

This will be a fun movie to watch. I can’t wait to see how they create these scenes for the screen.

And the chapter ends with a big reveal! The person who opened the chamber of secrets 50 years ago was none other than…

It was…

IT WAS…

Exactly who I suspected!

(No spoilers; I’ll put the answer in the comments if you ask. If you don’t want to know, don’t look.)

But

I KNEW it!

And I think part of the fun of reading a mystery is figuring out the clues along the way and jumping up and down triumphantly yelling I knew it!

Well… They were right. I did know it. And I do feel triumphant for being right.

That was fun. That was a great chapter.

This is a great story!

I’m going to have to look into it, but feel free to tell me if you know: did she plant that clue in story one? Or did she just use it as a fun thing to add? Was this like one big massive story that had to be cut up into separate books, or did she utilize little mysteries she left open in book one to tie them down and put two? That’s probably been answered somewhere in some interview, but let me know if you know.

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