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Cornerstones Masterclass in Self-editing Techniques: Character & Voice

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character

Helen Corner

As Writerswebtv.com launches the world’s first free-to-watch live interactive online workshops for writers, this article has been provided by Helen Corner at Cornerstones, a UK based literary consultancy offering services across a full range of genre. This article is based on Cornerstones’ Workshops, run by Helen Corner, Lee Weatherly, Kath Langrish and Julie Cohen (soon to feature in writerswebtv.com‘s Getting to the Heart of It live online workshop on Writing Women’s fiction) as well as the Teach Yourself: Write a Blockbuster And Get it Published book by Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly. Here, the workshop facilitators address the essential elements of character and voice:

Self-editing techniques are all interlinked: how to build strong characters and plot, to ensure that pace and tension are in place, when to show rather than tell, and generally how to redraft your manuscript to produce a thumping good story that is right for the age range and genre. For children’s literature, character and voice are the lifeblood of your fiction so it’s probably more useful to go into detail with that aspect in this article. Once you have your character(s) in place any issues with the plot and style will be easier to rework and develop.

By creating characters the reader cares about, you immediately increase the reader’s investment in the story. In turn, this means page-turning tension will be tighter, as the reader is desperate to know what happens to your hero, and whether he succeeds. Your main character should be inextricably intertwined with your plot, and it is their emotional journey – their conflicts, goals, and desires – which power the story.

The most important thing when it comes to creating convincing characters is inhabiting them. Think like an actor: become your character when you write. That way, whether you’re writing in first or third person, you should find that you’re automatically starting to hear that character’s ‘voice’.

Voice is a powerful tool for creating characters. Think of external voice – the words they speak and how they say them; the things they say and don’t say; the mannerisms which accompany their speech. But also consider the internal voice that accompanies your main character everywhere they go. How best to relay your character’s thoughts to the reader, without overburdening them?

Generally, one of the first choices you make will be related to your character perspective or point-of-view (POV). Will you write in first person or third; are you using one POV, or multiple? This can be down to your preference or what feels natural for the character. If you’re struggling with voice, or having trouble inhabiting your character, try switching from third to first person or vice versa. Often it’s just about finding the right choice for a scene or story.

First Person

The main benefit of first person is that the character’s voice can come through in the most authentic way. This can be particularly useful in Teen fiction, where an intimate, direct voice is essential, and where you’re looking for an emotional connection between reader and character.

Be aware that with a first person voice there can be a subjective element to the reader’s response – they either love it or loathe it, and there’s no escape. It’s also easy to slip into too much ‘telling’ and divulging chunks of information (or backstory) which can impact on pace. Don’t let your character’s internal voice run away with them and aim to keep a tight control of how much your character ‘talks to the reader’. A good way to balance this is to ensure that the action of each scene takes the character ‘out of their head’, and keeps them interacting with others so that they don’t commentate too much.

Example:

Me and Jane, we’re best friends. Well, I mean, I say that but we’ve had our ups and downs, not helped by the fact that our dads work together in the chip factory. I remember the time when Jane didn’t speak to me and her and Maggie spent all their time together throwing me looks. Well, I didn’t care, I just got on with things. And then Jane found out that Maggie really did fancy Luke which sent her into a right hump. So Jane and me were friends again. Result.

This could be considered a strong, internal voice, but the narrator is giving us too much information all at once and it feels a bit intense and claustrophobic. It also skims over the conflict, resolving the tension too quickly and missing the opportunity to build suspense.

Consider this instead:

Badbreath wrote four problems on the board. Quadratic equations – my worst enemy. Apart from Maggie, that is – sat next to Luke, again, right at the front.

I doodled a note to Jane. Get her! Thinks she’s his girlfriend. Freak.

Jane carried on tapping her calculator so I nudged her and added puke! to the note. She shifted in her seat, throwing me a funny look. What was up with her? Maybe she was still in a strop over the Chip Incident.

Maggie turned round and gave Jane a grin. Heat prickled up my neck.

Here, the scene is ‘shown’ and communicates the same information in a more active, involving way. Notice that the backstory has been left out, and the conflict speaks for itself rather than being summarised. The aim is to give a strong flavour of the character’s voice, without them explaining too much or chatting away for too long.

Third Person

Third person offers flexibility and freedom to adjust the focus of the story – a bit like a camera lens zooming in and out – which is particularly useful when you’re aiming for a specific tone, a dramatic effect or a broad focus, such as with Fantasy. It gives a bit more distance from the character but without necessarily sacrificing the reader’s involvement in the scene. This is particularly true of intimate third person (sometimes referred to as limited third person), in which the author inhabits one character closely at a time, where you can get almost as much insight into the character’s thoughts as in a first person narrative. It can be as simple as changing ‘I’ to ‘she’ throughout.

A good technique for getting across thoughts in a third person narrative is to weave them into the voice, also known as free indirect mode.

Example:

  • I will go and talk to him today, thought Becky. He’ll just have to tell me.
  • Becky screwed up her fists. She’d go and talk to him today. He’d just have to tell her.

In the first example, the direct thoughts in the first person present tense feel jarring because the narrative itself is in third person past tense. The second example weaves the thoughts seamlessly into the narrative voice in the past tense, so that we almost feel as though the narrator and the character are the same person.

If you decide to use multiple POVs, this allows you the freedom to choose which POV makes best use of the tension and drama in the scene. Switches between POV in this kind of narrative are usually delineated with a scene or chapter break. Some authors do ‘head-hop’ within one scene, but this is tricky to pull off and can seem uncontrolled and even confusing for a reader, and diminish tension.

Let’s look at the example from above but where we have access to each character’s POV:

Badbreath wrote four problems on the board. Quadratic equations – Kelly’s worst enemy. Apart from Maggie, that was – sat next to Luke, again, right at the front.

She doodled a note to Jane. Get her! Thinks she’s his girlfriend. Freak.

Jane carried on tapping her calculator. She wished Kelly would back off. She kind of liked Maggie now she’d explained about Luke.

Kelly nudged her and added puke! to the note. Jane shifted in her seat, throwing her a funny look. Kelly wondered what was up with her. Maybe she was still in a strop over the Chip Incident.

Maggie turned round and gave Jane a grin. She wondered if Kelly knew about them going shopping on Saturday. She hoped Kelly wasn’t going to make trouble for her.

This example now feels unwieldy as we’re trying to get to grips with how all three characters are feeling. It no longer has the tension of Kelly wondering what’s going on with Jane, and it’s quite hard to follow. Notice that with multiple third person POVs you aren’t able to be quite so direct with the characters’ thoughts and feelings – you have to signpost them with tags like ‘she wondered’ and ‘she hoped’ in order to differentiate them from the surrounding text.

Part of the reason intimate third person or first person are popular choices is that they mirror the way we, as humans, experience the world, only able to know what others are thinking by interacting with them and interpreting their actions and dialogue. It can therefore feel more realistic and add more mystery and tension.

(c) Cornerstones.co.uk

About the author

Cornerstones is a founding literary consultancy that provides professional self-editing feedback on all genres: children’s, adult fiction, and non-fiction. They also scout for leading UK agents. They are a teaching based consultancy and lecture at creative writing programmes all over the UK, including Oxford university. Their ethos is to help authors with any writer-related query whether they use their services or not, ‘If we can help an author in five minutes what might take them a year to find out then that’s a good thing,’ says Helen Bryant (nee Corner), director of Cornerstones. There is a filter system as well and they don’t take on every manuscript, but all authors receive free feedback on their first five pages and synopsis. Contact: helen@cornerstones.co.uk or call 020 77925551.

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