Monday 28 September 2015

Frankenwriter: How to Bring Your Character's Voice To Life

By Kathryn Evans
Kathryn Evans - New Girl On The Blog

Learning the mechanics of story is pretty straightforward.  Basically you need a Beginning, a Middle and an End. OK, it’s slightly more complicated than that but there are many excellent resources that’ll break it down for you – our own Maureen Lynas tells you how in Five Bricks of Story and Life and Seven Steps for Plotting and Pacing 

You can even buy software programmes to help: the Snowflake method has been recommended to me on a couple of occasions.

You can learn all this, you can follow it to the letter, and then you can read your story and find it is a dead thing. You may have the mechanics but where is the heart? Where is the spark? Where do you get the bolt of lightening that allows your Frankenbook to rise from the table and live, LIVE, LIVE!

Okay, getting a tiny bit carried away  there…but it is a serious point. What even is the spark? Where does it come from? Short of strapping your story to a table and waiting for Thor to throw you a thunderbolt, how do you inject life into your work?

Let me put on my white coat for this one. Or a billowing, black gown? Yes, a black, billowing, academic gown....Ready?

I think the spark in your story is you.
           Your voice is  your voice.

Addy Farmer gives a great summary of Beverley Birch’s excellent workshop on voice.  I highly recommend you read it, it's full of really excellent useful advice on what voice is and how to use it.

But what if you're still strugglingto even find your voice? How can you get at it?

This may seem weird, but genuinely, I think you should stop trying. Relax

Seriously ...relax 
 Your voice is the product of all you’ve read, all you’ve experienced, all you are. You already have it, you just need to let it seep into your work.

 Still not sure? Try some practical methods to mine it out:
  1.     .    Pen yourself a letter about what you love and hate most – you can be totally free because you’re writing to yourself, no one else will even see it. Just let it flow out of you – you should see yourself at your most passionate; this is your voice in its purest form. If you can do it in a letter, you can do it in a novel.
  2.              Make a recipe for book soup. List your favourite books – all of them, from your earliest memories – of those, pick five that you think best reflect aspects of your writing. Own them. (Both literally and figuratively). These are very likely the influences that have blended within you to make your voice – I’m going for Louise Rennison's Confessions of Georgia Nicholson, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights,  Isaac Asimov’s Brave New World, Jeanne Willis’ Dr Xargles Book of Earth Tiggers and Richard Adams’ Watership Down: female friendships, complex relationships, weird sciencey stuff and humour. Yep, that’s my book soup.
  3.      .    Jot down a few life events that have stuck in your mind – it’s likely they shape you AND your writing. Tap into emotions you’ve felt, allow yourself to relive them for the page. I once moaned, oh let's be honest here, bitched about a boy having bad breath and he was stood RIGHT BEHIND ME – the shame burned through me and how did I react? With bluster and excuses not humility.  I learned from that. I’d never do it again. But I also banked it in the Flawed Human Response file. Understand reality. Use it.
  4.     .       Write a sentence describing yourself, use at least three adjectives – does your writing express this? Try and make sure it does. I think I’m friendly and funny and full of energy but I also like to hide away and spend time doing odd hobbies – I’m a member of Citizen Science, I classify sunspots in my spare time!
  5.       .     Play act – when writing dialogue, play the characters – yes, out loud with actions and everything. Do they sound authentic? Really? Be honest with yourself.  
  6.       Take a favourite scene from a book and rewrite it your way. You’re telling the same story but can you see the difference? Can you see yourself in the words? If not, go back to number 4 and try again, bearing those things in mind.
  7.       Switch from  third to first person , even as a temporary measure, this can help you 'catch' your voice. For example:Eadie was horrified to see that Philip  was wearing her hairnet as a beard snood. He took it off and handed it back but she couldn't help thinking about the germs that might be on it. Compared to :'Urgh! That's disgusting, you're wearing my hairnet on your chin.'  I could feel my face mangling into a grimace as Philip handed  back the limp, blue net. I didn't even want to touch it, I bet he'd left his revolting germs all over it. 

 Remember your voice already exists, in every conversation you have, it’s there. You’ve already created it, with everything you’ve read and done and seen and said.

 All you have to do is open the channel and let the power flow …and your Frankenbook will live, LIVE, LIVE.

Use your power wisely!

P.S. I may have revealed more than I intended (the shame of that stinky breath incident, I am STILL cringing 30 years on). But there you go,  that's what happens when you let your Voice out. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Kathryn Evans also blogs on My Life Under Paper and you can follow her mood swings on twitter: @mrsbung 


  1. Book soup! Love it! And my flawed human response file is bulging with teeth-sucking incidents such as, wanting to introduce somebody I knew well-ish but forgetting their name, panicking and giving them the wrong name or phoning the police when I thought we had a burglar and discovering it was my daughter on study-leave (she'd told me) and oh dear there are more. Such good advice - I'm now sharing with my scbwi group. Thanks, Kathy!

  2. What a great blogpost! Addy, I have a similar one: my mum called the fire brigade once because I saw a fire in one of the students' rooms when we lived in an international college. Turned out it was a reflection of a fire in the caretaker's garden... Not sure quite how impressed the firemen were (and all the people who'd had to get outside when the firebell went off...). Anyway, I found your article really helpful and I'm cringing with you.

  3. Great stuff! Reaching in and dragging out that shameful, wriggling thing you've kept out of sight all these years will take courage and honesty - which is what it takes to write a good book.

  4. Thank you so much, Kathryn - you may, genuinely, have taken a weight off me. My excellent memory unfortunately contains full-colour imagery of things I wish I hadn't done since the age of three and I'm seventy next birthday. To be able to use them for a purpose! Wow!

    1. Hooray! We all make mistakes - what better thing to do than share them and perhaps spare someone else from doing the same thing!

  5. I think this is one of the best pieces I've read on voice. Actually, I think it may be the best. Brilliantly inspired, Evans! But then you are an absolute mistress of voice!

  6. I'm reading Georgia Nicholson at the moment! And I'm not ashamed to admit it :-)

  7. I love the bit about letters - including emails, which I am always really serious about, since I do feel they are my voice.
    And Amory, in William Boyd's new book Sweet Caress, always uses four adjectives - which I want to start doing, even if I'm not writing a book!
    And I love the photos - your relaxing one is so sweet.

  8. Love it. I think you're right. What most of those stone dead books need is a voice makeover. There's a shift and release when a writer's voice kicks in.

  9. Great advice. So much struggle is wasted trying to sound like someone else (some writer you admire or idolise) when one could just relax and write like the person no-one else in the world knows so well as you.

  10. I was thinking about my book soup. Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Not Now Bernhard, 1984, Jonathan Strange, Harry Potter, Matilda. So where does my comedy writing come in I wonder? Maybe there's a common theme? They're all very strong on story and right and wrong which are definitely feature of my books. Excellent post, thanks for the link x


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