Friday, 25 October 2013

Why Characters Need to Speak With Their Own Voice and Not The Author's

Every story has a central protagonist. This is the character who mostly drives the action of the story and it is through their experiences that the plot is filtered for the reader. We may not always agree with this character's motives, but it is important that we empathise with them and understand what it is that drives them. For an author to achieve this, he or she must give the character their own unique voice.

A common trap for authors to fall into is to put too much of themselves into the lead character. This is particularly dangerous because it removes the character from the action. It makes them appear hollow and somewhat fake. The character no longer reacts naturally to the story and comes across as bland. A good author does not dictate the decisions of their characters, but instead tries to second guess and figure out the way that such a character would genuinely react to the situations thrown at them.

When writing in the third person, the author can add description and information about the characters in any way that they choose. In a first person narrative this is not so easy. In this case, the author cannot tell us directly about a character, but they must show it through the way that said character speaks and acts. The voice that tells the story is no longer their own, but that of their character. If a story has multiple narrators it is imperative that the reader can distinguish each one as an individual entity with its own style and flavour.

In my second novel, Stealing Asia, the story is narrated by three different characters in turn. Each one has their own motivation and each knows information that the others do not. Only by putting their three stories together does the full picture become visible. Each one also has their own unique voice, which stands apart from the other two. When the narrative baton is passed, we know instantly that we are going to get a very different take on events.

The first narrator is Ben, a naive and inexperienced backpacker. He is unsure of himself, but also trusting and optimistic. This is how he begins his story:

"Travelling is supposed to be easy. People join the trail all the time. It is simply a matter of bumping into them in the right place and at the right moment. A hostel dorm room, a crowded bar; anyplace can provide the backdrop to an unexpected bringing together of kindred spirits. You could find a drinking buddy for the night or make a lifelong friend. Who knows?."

The second narrator is Esteban. He has a conscience, but does not allow it to cloud his decisions. Esteban is also a realist and he speaks bluntly and tells the story exactly how he sees it. These are his first lines:

"My name is Esteban Cruz. I do not consider myself to be a bad man, but I have done bad things. Terrible things. For this, I am not proud. I thought that I could make amends for my past, but I was wrong."

The story is completed by Asia. She is also bluntly honest, but unlike Esteban she does not take responsibility for her flaws. She can be antagonistic and mischievous and this shows in the way that she opens her part of the narrative:

"I knew that it was wrong, but I could not help myself. A psychologist would call it a plea for attention. I just call it one in a long line of easily forgettable hook-ups. If I am really honest with myself, I only screwed him to see if sex would feel any different on a boat."

For each of the above, I essentially had to take on the persona of the character as I narrated the story through them. I had to allow them to tell it how they saw it and to not let my own opinions and prejudices get in the way. In order to write a realistic character, we must first become that character. When writing fiction, particularly in the first person, the one voice that does not belong is the authors.

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