|Guitar player at concert|
By Jamie Freveletti
Write in your own voice, don’t imitate.
I’ll bet if you’re writing a manuscript you’ve heard that from an endless number of teachers, workshops and other writers and agents. When I first heard this, it did confuse me a bit, because writing fiction is, by definition, not about the writer. Unless you’re writing a memoir, your character has nothing to do with you. It’s a made up story that’s not real. And if you’re writing thrillers even more so, because most of us have days that are not thrilling. They’re…usual. We wake up, do chores, go to work, and some of us write fiction for a living.
Last month I was talking to a professional actor and we were discussing casting: how it’s done, what choices are made. I asked why so many famous actors seem to be really playing themselves rather than the character they’re portraying. Harrison Ford seems to always be the upstanding man, Meg Ryan made a living as the “girl next door” character in many romantic comedies. I suggested that a new actor just starting her career might want to inhabit the space that these actors do. Perhaps they can get hired as the upstanding man or girl next door.
The actor made an interesting comment. She said, “Actually, no. The new actor needs to carve out her own space. Because if the casting director wants Harrison Ford or Meg Ryan, she’ll simply call their agents and be done with it. The new actor will be left behind. Only by bringing your own unique angle to the work will the new actor get cast in a role. Then one day the casting director will call her for the unique angle she’s built a reputation on.”
It makes perfect sense when you think about it, and it applies to musicians and writers as well. A musician brings their own unique sound to their songs. While the basic genre of the song might be “rock” or “blues” etc. the angle, interplay and emotion that the musician brings to the song is what makes it stand out.
It’s the same for writers. My Emma Caldridge character is a logical, clear-eyed scientist who uses her intellect to get out of tough situations. She’s a bit like a female MacGyver, but she also brings a fearlessness to her scenes and will pick up a weapon if required, and this is where she differs. Weapons aren’t her first choice, and so she uses her knowledge of plants and chemical interactions to solve her problems. In short, she’s a unique blend.
And what about those of us who write for others? I’ve written for the Estate of Robert Ludlum and there are musicians out there who play in tribute bands that attempt to recreate the sound of famous musicians. Even in these circumstances, voice is required. While I was given the Covert–One characters to bring to life, I created the new story, circumstances and the characters’ reactions to it.
If you’re writing a novel your voice will emerge most effectively if you do your best to silence the inner critic and think about how the character will react to certain circumstances. Your force of personality will show in glints as you do and it’s those glints that make the story yours. And remember, character is an arrow and it works best when the arrow stays straight. What do I mean? Imagine an arrow shooting directly to a target. That’s your character’s world view. Stay with that for everything that character does. Emma Caldridge views a scene with dispassion, intellect and knowledge of how things will react in real time. She creates weapons from what appears to be thin air, but they work because she knows the rules of elements and chemicals and their interactions. When her arrow flies I need to always follow it in a straight, logical fashion and be aware of the world around her and what tools she’ll need to overcome odds.
Another great example is the character of Scarlet in Gone With The Wind. She’s selfish and uncaring, doing anything and everything to fulfill her own needs and keep Tara, the rest of the world be damned. She tries to steal others’ husbands and boyfriends, lies to those around her and fights to the end. Her arrow never curves. This is why she’s a memorable and iconic character.
If you’re writing a manuscript think of the character’s arrow and write along the trajectory. It’s just one tip to keep a character true to themselves, but I hope it helps!
Interesting, Jamie. You are advocating exactly what I will be teaching at CraftFest in NYC on Thursday morning, July 11th at 8:00 am. It's called TUNNEL VISION: Mastering Deep POV. I'm looking forward to your class, too. Catch Jamie for ACTION AND CONFLICT on Wednesday, July 10th at 1:00 pm. And, of course, Gayle Lynds will be teaching on Wednesday, too, at 10:30 a.m. THE 8 SECRETS TO CREATING A BESTSELLING THRILLER. If your in NYC at CraftFest, don't miss seeing the Rogues.
A most thought-provoking piece, Jamie…you are so right about creating memorable characters in your thrillers –ones with special talents. I try to do that too by creating characters who are MUCH smarter than I am (had to do a ton of research to pull that off though). And yes, anyone attending Thrillerfest (terrific conference!!) should definitely check out the Craftfest sessions that Chris mentions above. Thanks for a great post!…Karna Bodman
This is wonderful insight: "Only by bringing your own unique angle to the work will the new actor get cast in a role. Then one day the casting director will call her for the unique angle she's built a reputation on." And it's true of fiction, too … our voices are as unique as our fingerprints. Terrific blog, Jamie.
‘Voice’ in writing is one of the hardest concepts to wrap one’s mind around. Like ‘compelling’—what is it? Just tell me how to do it!!!
Thanks for a great description.
Thanks Chris! So looking forward to Thrillerfest!
Right? Compelling gets me every time. Have yet to formulate a tip for that one!
Wish there was a LIKE button on all your comments! I'd hit it!
Anyway, I love this quote: "Character is an arrow and it works best when the arrow stays straight." So very true!
But like Lisa, I have to agree. Voice is one of those intangible things. Someone tell me how to do it!
Great article, Jamie!