Find Your Voice

I’m coming down from the euphoric high that was #UCIJRetreat2021 and had an interesting development regarding my #RevPit entry.

#RevPit is a contest where writers submit five pages to their editors of choice, who review them and determine if they’re worthy for eight-week, one-on-one editing sessions. I submitted the first five pages of Accursed Son, my urban fantasy with family saga and Armenian mythology themes. 

The editor I chose asked for a full request, along with a synopsis! 

Hopes high, I submitted the materials and waited until they announced the finalists on April 26. I wasn’t among them, but the editor sent me her feedback and an invitation for a 30-minute video call to discuss the next steps. 

Her comments were somewhat positive. She liked the premise and that the story balanced light and dark elements and I was a good storyteller. 

Then came the tough love. She found a problem with the narrative voice and protagonist’s POV. She said there was too much exposition and info dumps, which killed the story’s pacing. 

During our video call, she recommended I work on improving the protagonist’s voice. 

Voice is everything. One of the problems I’ve been having is having readers connect with my protagonist. Voice is revealed in how your characters see the world, how they interact with others, and what others think of them. 

If your protagonist’s voice is weak, things feel off, everything your character does falls flat, and their actions don’t resonate. 

But an engaging and active voice, one that’s competent and full of piss and vinegar, entices your readers. 

Developing voice requires some investment. You’ve got to put in the time working on your character’s background, habits, motivations and mannerisms. They’ve got to leap off the page and resemble real flesh-and-blood people. 

For this, I tried a few tricks I learned at #UCIJRetreat 2021. The first is the character sheet. Write their statistics including physical description, their background, family information, their occupation, and their likes and dislikes. This is like character generation for role-playing games and is fun way to breathe life into your writing.  

Fleshing out my protagonist with a character sheet. Here’s where heroes are born, not forged from iron, but with descriptions of their height, weight and personal food allergies.

Like everyday folks, your protagonists carry baggage with them. Do they have phobias? Any hidden talents or skills? Money woes? Relationship issues? Are they educated? Religious? What drives them forward? What are the obstacles blocking their progress?

Write all of this down and your protagonist will gradually reveal themselves. 

In developing the background for my protagonist, I learned a lot about him that I didn’t know before. My protagonist, Armand Tarkanian, has always rattled around in my head while I wrote this book, but I never really KNEW him. 

You have to KNOW your characters. 

Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell is a good craft book for discovering and shaping your voice through various exercises. One of these is interviewing your protagonist. Write a bunch of questions and answer them as the main character, in their voice and with their unique style.   

Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell will help you channel your character’s voice in a whirlwind of emotion and fury. It won’t give you Thorlike lightning-hurling powers, but it’s still a good craft book.

This will get those creative juices flowing as you see how their voice tumbles onto the page. 

You should share headspace with your characters. Let them possess you and understand what they want and what obstacles they face. Walk around in your imaginary friend’s skin, not in a creepy Silence of the Lambs way, but in a way where you see their perspective.

Bell also lists writing exercises to help you channel your emotions when you write. This is especially handy when characters are facing conflict or contemplating big decisions.   

The book includes several examples of voice from different genres. You can appreciate how each author carefully crafted their characters, making each one a distinct individual. Pulling this off takes practice. Fortunately, you as the writer are in control. 

This brings me back to an article author Ralph Walker wrote about breaking writer’s block by imagining your characters at the grocery store.

This exercise is also great for getting to know your characters, not just their dietary preferences or whether they hate crowds, but how they interact with others, perceive their surroundings, and if their narration and language reflects their mood.

After completing a few exercises, I fleshed out my protagonist with a detailed background. This made Armand’s motivations clearer. I gave him a significant middle name, named the college he attended, and described his work ethic. His family relationships and conflicts became clearer. 

Your characters need oomph and pizazz. They need a history, friendships, hindrances, talents. They should have unique voices and memorable traits like a breakdancing addiction or a proclivity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  

Otherwise, you’ll end up with a tepid protagonist whose ineffectual voice bores readers to death. The more detail you bake into your protagonist and the more captivating they are, the more you hook your readers. 

Hooked readers are the best kind. They keep turning your pages. 

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