Sunday, August 1, 2010

How to Nail Voice (According to Rachel Vail)

Today, I attended a workshop session with Rachel Vail. The session was all about voice, and how to create a different voice for each of your characters. The house was PACKED and with good reason - with more than 30 books for children under her belt, she knows how to create unique voices that match each of her character's identities. Better still, she has a background in acting, so even before she was writing she was mastering voice.

Rachel actually uses her acting past to help her when she writes. When she needs to get into the head of one of her characters, she'll think about the way they walk or sit, and she'll walk or sit that way - for example, one of her characters was a ballerina, and in researching Rachel learned that ballerinas don't cross their legs when they sit down (something to do with messing up their turn-outs or otherwise general awesomeness. I watched "Center Stage" as I was packing for the conference so I know how important it is to keep all that in tact.) And they sit up very, very straight. That same character also talked very slowly and deliberately because she used to have a speech impediment. So when she was getting ready to write, she would sit up straight, uncross her legs, and drop her fast-talking ways. And she noticed an immediate change in the voice in her head. Her character came much more naturally, and the voice on the page sounded more accurate.

If you're having trouble getting into your character's head or keeping it fresh, Rachel has a list of questions she suggests you answer. She calls it her "Form to Form a Character." When she first started listing these, I sort of sighed a bit. Haven't we all seen lists like these before? But after a few lines I got it - the difference here is you shouldn't answer as you, answer as your character. Fill out the form as the character sees themselves. A 12-year-old girl who has watched her friends develop before her wouldn't describe herself as "thin," but she would say she was "flat-chested." Think about those intimate details, and more importantly remember how you thought about yourself when you were that age, because that can be a great clue to getting inside a child's head. (You can also eavesdrop! I love doing this, especially at the mall, where girls will talk endlessly about how they feel about their looks. Just try not to get too close and be sure to look inconspicuous enough that you don't look like a creepy stalker.)

Here are some of the questions from the form:

My name is
My name came from
My nickname is
My name means
My age is
I look...
I can’t stand...
I love my mother but...
My friends...
I wish...
If I could change one thing about myself...
My favorite food is...
I love to wear...
When I grow up...
The worst thing I ever did was...
The best part of school is...
I wish I were more...

At the end of the day, remember that the character won't come out in the first draft - of course it won't. That was the first thing that came out of your brain, so it's bound to be cliche and boring. As you go through and revise, pay attention to giving each of your characters as distinct a voice as each person has in real life (because your characters are like real kids), and eventually you will nail it.


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  2. Great post. It is so true that you need to answer those question as the character and not as the writer. I tend to do this a lot...maybe that's the reason my CPs always write, "Would she really say that?" Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I'm glad I'm on the right track. When I started developing my MC, I took one of those surveys people used to fill out all the time on

  4. Ooh, this is awesome. Might run through this with my fun new characters later today..!

  5. What an interesting post. Physicality affects so much how a person feels and interacts with the world, but I'd never thought of using it for characters in a novel.


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