Giving Characters Their Own Voice
As long as there have been creative writing classes, aspiring authors have received the same advice: Write what you know.
Unfortunately, unless you know a lot — and even if you do — that advice will only take you so far. You’ll still face the issue of building characters whose life experience is very different from your own. Male authors have to put themselves inside the heads of female characters, and vice versa. Adults have to reexperience the world through the eyes of children. No matter your race, geography, or economic history, you’ll find yourself creating characters from backgrounds you haven’t experienced personally.
I confront this issue with every book because I like to build a cast that includes strong, interesting women, teenagers, and characters with a wide range of backgrounds. Sometimes they are the heroes, sometimes the victims, and sometimes the perpetrators. They are good and bad, heroic and sinful. In other words, they’re real people. I don’t like to write about superheroes or super-villains. I like to write about ordinary people who find themselves in dark situations.
My latest book, presented some special challenges. This book brings to life a character from Jonathan Stride’s past—his late wife, Cindy, who has been in many ways “larger than life” throughout the series. I needed to make her real on the page for readers who have heard Stride talk about her for ten years. Similarly, I revisit the character of Cat Mateo from The Cold Nowhere in this book. She’s a teenage girl with a troubled background who has become a big part of Stride’s life.
Of course, I’m a male writer. I’ve never been a teenage girl, and my wife and I don’t have kids. So as a writer, how do I capture these characters authentically? How do I make them feel real on the page?
Men and women are very different, and so are adults and teenagers. However, one thing we all have in common is that we are the product of our experiences. We may learn different lessons from what happens to us, but we can draw a line from our past to where we are today. That’s how I approach every character—man or woman.
I do background biographical sketches on every person before starting a new book. Much of that material may never find its way into the novel, but if I know the events that shaped who that person is, I can help her or him come alive on the page. What we do, what we say, how we behave, and the choices we make all depend on what we’ve learned from life.
There also comes a point where the character takes over from the writer. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. I have to listen to the characters because after a while, they start guiding me. If I stray from who they really are on the page—if I try to make them do or say things that don’t feel right for them as people—they will typically pull me back. Sometimes I have to change my plot design because the characters take me in different directions.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether I’m writing about a woman or a man, an adult or a teenager. What matters is the authenticity of that character on the page. If I feel intensely about that person, then I think the reader will, too. And I often find myself writing with tears running down my face because these characters (whom I love) don’t always wind up in the best places. But that’s life.
When my second book, Stripped, was released, I received an e-mail from a reader about a particular scene in which Detective Serena Dial interviews a mother who has lost a child in an accident. This reader wanted to know if I had ever lost a child because that scene captured
the emotions of the parent so well that he thought I must have experienced it myself.
Fortunately, I was able to say no, I had never gone through a tragedy like that. But as a writer, that’s the highest praise you can receive. It means that it wasn’t you speaking on the page. It was the character taking on her own voice. And she truly connected with a reader’s heart.
Brian Freeman (www.bfreemanbooks.com) is the bestselling author of ten psychological thrillers, including the Jonathan Stride and Cab Bolton series. His stand-alone novel SPILLED BLOOD won the award for Best Hardcover Novel in the Thriller Awards. His newest, GOODBYE TO THE DEAD, was just released by Quercus.