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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Who is Speaking Please? by Åsa Maria Bradley

A few years ago, a critique partner told me that she had problems distinguishing between my characters. I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, my dear CP said, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two male and one female were speaking, none of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fu**.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant.

I revised and proudly showed my CP the new version. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” My poor CP’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand and return home to rewrite them again.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking.

When I started writing, I thought that voice-driven fiction only took place in first person POV. Then I paid more attention to how my favorite authors stayed completely in character, not only through dialogue, but also during narratives.

One of my favorite characters is Stella Hardesty in Sophie Littlefield’s A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. Here’s a narrative passage:

“Stella had drained the Johnnie. She hadn’t really intended to, but some nights were like that. Some nights were for thinkin’ and drinkin’, when it seemed like you couldn’t do one without the other.

Stella rarely drank in the days before Ollie died. She’d figured that someone in the house ought to stay sober, and Ollie frequently wasn’t up to the job.”

Stella is a fifty-year-old woman who was beaten by her alcoholic husband and ended up killing him when she’d had enough. She now helps other women deal with their abusive men. A job that keeps her so busy, she rarely has time to run her sewing shop.

You’d think a theme like this would make Littlefield’s book a tragic story. Instead, it’s rich with humor and quirky characters that make you laugh out loud. Told entirely from Stella’s POV, in third person, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to see the funny side of things.

Another favorite character is sassy Sabine, Queen of Illusions, from Kresley Cole’s KISS OF A DEMON KING. Sabine knows how important appearances are and prefers wearing audacious costumes with tons of bling. Here’s a scene from when she first makes contact with Rydstrom Woede, the demon king she’s forced to seduce.

“She’d thought it wouldn’t hurt to appear virtuous, which she assumed a good demon king would prefer.

“He had better like her shuddersome new look. Except for her ring, not a single ounce of gold adorned her body. No makeup, either. She’d left her hair unplaited, curling almost to her waist—without a headdress. And it felt wrong.”

By making Sabine describe what she’s wearing, and not wearing, we know not only what she looks like but how different this is compared to her normal look. We also get a feel for her personality by the vocabulary Ms. Cole chose.

These days, I try to make my characters stand out by more than just their preference of curse words. I give them different ways of speaking by playing with vocabulary and tone of voice. They often have a particular quirk, or pet peeve, or something in their background colors their perception of people, places, and things. After I’ve gotten to know my characters, I go back through my manuscript and tighten sections where I’m in particular character’s POV and make his or her voice stand out better.

Here are some of my favorite exercises, I hope they help you flush out your characters’ uniqueness as well.

1) Have your characters describe a childhood event. It could be a road trip they took with their parents, a traumatic event, or something that happened at school. Then rewrite that scene as if they were a child, using their younger voice as the narrator.

2) Imagine an event in the past that made your character very sad, angry, happy, or scared. Have the character describe the event while thinking about what unique words or phrases describes how personal this even was to that particularly character.

3) Pretend that you are writing a scene for a movie. In other words, you can’t describe what your characters are feeling or thinking. Instead, you have to rely only on gestures to get their emotions across. What unique movements or quirks would your characters have?

Do you have a favorite way of getting to know your character’s voice?  Please share with us.

Thank you so much for having me on the blog today. I love this group and can’t believe how supportive all members are, not only on the blog and the loops, but also when I met several of you at nationals in Anaheim.

Bio:  Åsa Maria Bradley new paranormal series features Vikings and Valkyries and their struggle to keep the world safe from Ragnarök—the god’s final battle. She’s originally from Sweden, where Norse mythology and history is ever present in archeological finds and buildings around the village where she grew up. Her articles have appeared in several magazines and she had an essay included in FEMALE NOMAD AND FRIENDS: TALES OF BREAKING FREE AND BREAKING BREAD AROUND THE WORLD (Three River Press 2010). She lives in Washington State with her British husband and a used dog of indeterminate breed. Visit her at AsaMariaBradley.com.


Pamala Knight said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks for not only explaining that characters need to sound/speak/behave differently, even if only slightly, but also SHOWING us how it's done.

Asa Maria Bradley said...

Thanks for the kind words, Pamala, and thanks for stopping by.

Cecy said...

I tend to assign mannerisms with my characters depending on their personality. Taran Wird, my fiesty sister in The Weird Girls Series rolls her eyes when she grows impatient (that happens a lot) and throws her hands in the air when she's screaming and swearing. My kind-hearted sister, Emme, speaks softly and always uses touch to comfort. Great post Asa!

Asa Maria Bradley said...

Cecy, I love Taran's eyerolling and throwing of hands. I like all the sisters, but she's definitely a favorite. :-)