Finding Your Own Voice

Finding Your Own Voice

(or, in other words, how to make characters feel real)

by Jeff Wheeler

Inside almost every work of fiction, usually on the copyright page, is a disclaimer that publishers put there to deflect potential lawsuits stating that the incidents and people represented in the work are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead . . . blah, blah, blah.

I’m probably not the only person who reads this statement and thinks, “Yeah, right.”

I think most writers usually come in two varieties: plot authors and character authors. Occasionally, an ambidextrous author comes along and can do both equally well. For me, I started out as a plot author. I’ve never struggled coming up with new ideas, new worlds, new politics. But I did struggle for many years making character-driven stories. It was my weakness as an author. So I tried to work on it. Here’s how:

One of the ways I try to make my books feel real is that I base my characters, or at least some of their traits, on real people I know. Some are so cleverly disguised that no one would ever know it was them. Some are deliberate tributes to people I know and admire. For example, in my Kingfountain series, the cook, Liona, and her husband, Drew, are dear friends of mine. They happened to listen to the audio version of The Queen’s Poisoner on a trip to Europe while driving to Hohenzollern castle (which I based the castle Kingfountain on in the book). They knew they had a cameo in the book and enjoyed their little tribute. Many, however, have no idea that they have been used as inspiration for characters in my books.

Why do I and other authors do this? Because one of the crafts of writing is finding voices. Some people seem to think the author’s “voice” means the narrative flow of the story—who is telling the story. This is really easy to see when an author chooses to write in first person and the reader experiences the stream of consciousness of the main character. All that we see comes through their point of view. But there are so many other voices that need to be heard. The voices of the different characters are, I argue, what make the most difference. And even when an author chooses to write in first person, you can experience those other voices through the main character. It’s the different voices that make you fall in love with a story.

For me, the magic of a story—what pulls me into it—happens when characters in a story interact with each other. This is how I learn about them, their likes and dislikes, their personalities, their idiosyncrasies. This is what makes me want to root for them or despise them. Getting to know characters by bouncing them off each other is, to me, the most critical thing an author can do establish their voice.

What tends to happen, on the other hand, is that new writers try to create their authorial voice. They focus on stringing sentences together. Trying to impress their readers with brilliant similes or metaphors or unique descriptions. The more time I spend in the main character’s head, the less I’m interested in them or care about them. Instead, give them someone to spar with immediately. In other words, one plus one equals three. When you bring two characters together, you add more life to both of them than you do by focusing exclusively on the main character. It’s chemistry. It causes reactions. And I’m not just talking about two romantic leads. The chemistry happens when two characters share a page. Any page.

For this to work, it means that every time characters appear in a scene, they need to be distinct in some way. In movies, there are lots of “extras”—people that don’t have major roles to play, but they add emotional depth. Instead of trying to flesh out all of these extras with random details, I tap people I’ve known from work, church, family, friends—wherever I can find them. In fact, having a writer’s mind helps me when I meet new people because their mannerisms might make them perfect for a role as an innkeeper, a noble, a poisoner.

Let me be specific by providing an example. I think I really achieved a new level as a writer with my original Legends of Muirwood trilogy because of the character development. I really tried to get it right, compared to my earlier attempts. The beginning of the novel The Wretched of Muirwood takes place in the Aldermaston’s kitchen on the night of a terrible storm that threatens to flood the abbey. The main character, Lia, is in the loft listening in on a conversation happening in the kitchen between the head cook, Pasqua, and the Aldermaston, a stern man prone to bursts of anger. My main character, Lia, doesn’t even get to speak for the first bit, but we experience her thoughts as she listens to the two people who have basically raised her as a foundling talk to each other, and it’s through their speeches that we learn about them and we learn about Lia.

I based the Aldermaston partly on a historical figure, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. His brooding photo is still on my laptop, and I would look at it when I wrote scenes with him. I learned about General Lee from Ken Burns’s wonderful documentary on the Civil War, which I’ve watched multiple times. Having the idea of him in my head helped me write scenes with the Aldermaston. At what point would he irrupt after maintaining his often-strained patience? Pasqua, on the other hand, was based on one of my mother’s good friends. Her real name is Pasqua, and I’ve pretty much channeled part of her personality in the book while taking many creative liberties. Most of the time I change the names to protect the innocent, but I just couldn’t think of a better name for Pasqua’s character than the real one! And I loved the maternal role she plays in Lia’s life throughout the series.

Some have wondered where the term “by Cheshu” comes from (which was used by two cantankerous hunters in both of my Muirwood trilogies). Well, I based Martin (one of them) off a minor character in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Captain Fluellen. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of the film, and Ian Holm played that character and nailed it. That inspiration became the ‘voice’ of Martin, and guess what—if you listen closely to the movie or read the manuscript, you’ll find the gruff captain muttering “by Cheshu” now and then.

So many authors joke about taking revenge on people in their books. While I have done that too, I think it’s perfectly normal to find voices in the real world and incorporate them into fiction. The act of creativity is the mashing up of different existing ideas to create something new. All of my books have been inspired by other events, historical or mythological, that I’ve woven together to create new worlds my readers have enjoyed.

As I read stories that get submitted to Deep Magic, sometimes I think that the author is trying too hard to channel the voice of another author. This story feels like Dresden Files. This one feels like Harry Potter. This feels like Brent Weeks. It’s quite normal for a new author to try mimicking the voices of authors they admire. I did the same thing when I wrote my first epic fantasy Landmoor, and I encourage it for authors who love my Muirwood series who want to write and publish stories through the Kindle Worlds program. I’ve just discovered along my author’s journey that the more I made characters interact with each other, for good or ill result, the more interesting it made my books.

So here’s my advice in a nutshell. If you’re starting out, or even if you’re experienced as a writer, think about the kind of cast you need to reveal your main character to the reader. Think about the variety of people they will meet that will reveal different aspects of them. Someone they despise. Someone they trust. Someone they’re afraid of. Someone they secretly love. The interactions with these people will tell us more about them than just listening to them yammer on in their own heads. This means you’ll need to be a good people watcher. Find your voice by listening to the many voices that are already around you.

Sometimes, your best supporting characters might be people you already know. You’ll find your own voice if you listen to theirs.

Clearing in Cypress tree forest

Article from the February 2017 Issue of Deep Magic

Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler

Wall Street Journal bestselling author of over forty epic fantasy novels.

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  • Ron Smith says:

    two questions: (1) It sounds from leafing your blog and newspaper that David Pomerico was important in your success. He has left 47North. Is there anyone else there for history fiction? (2) how did a history major end up in science fiction?

    • Avatar photo Jeff Wheeler says:

      David went to HarperVoyager but we’re still friends. Jason Kirk at 47North is my editor now. He’s awesome! And for #2, you may as well ask how a history major ended up in a 20+ year career at Intel before ending up as a fantasy author. Both are long stories!

  • Emi Church says:

    What advice would you give an author who finds it easy to create unique and interesting characters, but often struggles in putting them into equally unique and interesting worlds?

  • Breanna Rose says:

    This is the most interesting way I’ve ever heard voice explained and I really, really like it! I just finished reading all the Kingfountain books (except for the one that came out a few weeks ago. I was told to wait for my birthday and it’s been torture) and I love the way you incorporate such an intense plot with such memorable characters. One of my other favorite authors, John Flanagan, says that every character in his books was based on somebody he knew. I am interested to learn that some of yours were too. It just makes them even more real somehow.
    I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eleven, and I want to learn what you’ve described here–how you make me love your characters. I want to know how you made me so angry when Evie and Owen didn’t end up together, and how I somehow still cheered for Owen to wind up with Sinia. They’re so magically real.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for this. You have just helped me more than you realize. I will now no longer feel creepy while eavesdropping on random people in coffee shops. 🙂

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