Finding Your Voice

I’ve been writing for a long time.

When I was 16, I began a handwritten novel that was essentially an homage to the Robert Ludlum books I had been devouring. I called it The Zurich Connection. See? It even sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel.

My book was about a skilled operative who is suddenly wrapped up in a worldwide threat, and whose family is also suddenly endangered. I envisioned and wrote some cool action scenes. I even had the Grossmunster in Zurich send me a bunch of information so that I could base a huge action scene in it.

The summer of that year involved writing letters to the Scottish chick I had a crush on, writing my book, and eating ramen and Cool Ranch Doritos.

Cult life wasn’t all that bad, when you get down to it.

Was that book (still only 160 or so pages into it…) my voice? Was that the type of story I was destined to write? It was certainly what I loved to read. Heck, I still love reading espionage.

I also have been writing poetry for over 20 years. I’ve probably even gotten better at it. Most of those poems should never see the light of day, however. I believe there are two types of poetry– or art, really. 1) Stuff done with craft and skill and audience in mind– this can be from the heart, but there is craft, skill etc. involved and is fit for public consumption. 2) Stuff from the heart that is essentially soul-puke. It is raw, craft-less and is cathartic for the artist. This stuff generally ought to be kept from the public eye, I think.

Anyway, was/is poetry my voice? I certainly would have loved to write lyrical verse that moved people and made thousands of people ponder the human condition. Some kind of prominent award would have been appreciated. (Okay, forget the past perfect tense, I’d still love a prominent award. With a lifetime supply of rice krispy treats.)

I have since written multiple short stories and am nearly finished novel #3. Short stories have ranged from science fiction (mostly very derivative) to fantasy (I have trouble confining these to short story size) and from action to crime/detective and dramatic/romantic. My first novel is a YA fantasy. My second is straight YA. My third is YA adventure.

I also spent a couple of years writing immense amounts of SEO web copy, instructional pieces like training manuals and how-to’s, and basic magazine-level expository articles. Heck, I was a finalist in the Pulitzer Center’s Contest for Citizen Journalism. The National Press Club invited me to be a member. Add to all that the political commentary I used to do and I have changed genre and voice more than Anne Hathaway changed dresses at the Oscars.

So the question of finding my voice has been on my mind lately.

I attended LTUE (Life, the Universe and Everything) a remarkable writers’ conference held at BYU recently and there was this panel about how to not impose your morals on the characters in your book.

This got me to thinking deeply about the voice of my current protagonist, Lakhoni, in Servant of the King. Does he have a voice? Does my friend Melinda think he sounds older than I think he is because he sounds, essentially, like me?

What about the protagonist in The Cabin? This is the novelized version of my life in the cult. It’s based on real events. That character is, for all intents and purposes, me. But is it adult me or 14 year old me? Is the voice not strong enough and true enough to a 14 year old boy in a cult? Is that why the editor at Little, Brown said she couldn’t really identify with the kid?

How do we find the voice that our characters need?

It’s hard, for me at least. I have to say, in my defense, that the coolest character I’ve created so far has to be Gimno, in Servant of the King. He’s complex and a real joy to write. His motivations are murky to others and is full of surprises. He’s completely not me.

So I think a major step in my process of finding voices for my characters is to look for me in each character and decide if that element of me is true to the character or is just me filling in the gap. But before that, I think I need to try harder to really get to know my characters. That being the case, I’ve had an idea.

What if I, when building a character, really get deeper into the person by placing them in different situations? Totally outside the story I mean. So I can take Lakhoni and put him in a situation where his friends are bullying another kid. Or put him in his future when he discovers his wife has cheated on him.

Then I can explore what Lakhoni does and why.

I’m going to try this when I do my rewrites of The Cabin and Servant of the King.

And another part of finding the characters’ voices, I think, will be to be certain I understand their goals from early on. Goals for the story, goals in life, daily motivations and all of that. It has been interesting with my latest book, because I have understood Lakhoni’s goals from the get-go. This has really informed his inner dialogue, which I think has made him a far more rich character.

So what’s my voice? It’s not expressed by a character. My voice is the stories I tell and how I choose to tell them- whatever genre they are in.

But my characters’ voices have become the real issue. I hope I can work harder and develop my craft more so that I can become more adept at finding the voices of the people whose stories I tell.

How do YOU go about determining your characters’ voices? Any exercises or techniques you care to share?

About jaredgarrett

Jared Garrett is the author of Beat, a YA scifi thriller, and its forthcoming sequel, both published by Future House Publishing. A new series, debuting in January 2016 and also published by Future House, kicks off with Lakhoni, a fast-paced rescue adventure in a world reminiscent of Aztec culture, to be released in January 2016. He self-published Beyond the Cabin, a novelization of his childhood in a cult, in December 2014. Both Beat and Beyond the Cabin were Whitney Award nominees, and his story Song of the Wind, received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. In addition to writing, he's spent fifteen years in adult education and is an accomplished public speaker and workshop leader.
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