Writing Excuses: Q and A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 18 ‘Q&A session’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

 Question: How do you create distinct voices for characters so they don’t all sound the same?

  • The voice/perspective of the character should be a product of their environment, upbringing, occupation, experience etc. How they perceive the world and what they see will be different to other characters. E.g. a receptionist might see a ‘tool’ on the cabinet, while a mechanic will see the same tool and know it’s exact name, approximate value, function, limitations and capabilities.
  • They will be interested in or ask questions that reflect their viewpoints or knowledge.
  • Try to get across who they are without explicitly telling the reader.

When I think about portraying a character’s voice I automatically think of Sian from the Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan). Sian is one of most powerful elected figureheads in an important faction in the story world. But before she was that, she was a girl from a fishing village. Most of her jokes, curses and insights are all flavoured with salt… which is my eloquent way of saying that they come from her background and speak to her past.

  • Dan Willis (guest podcaster) writes the backstory of the characters; this helps get their voice. This helps you break away from unicharacter conglomerates.
  • Brandon Sanderson uses a practice technique of trying to write a scene with only dialogue and tries to differentiate the characters using that. (No narration, no dialogue tags).
  • When you know the characters you know what they will say and how they will say it. Know your characters really well.
  • The words they use will be different. E.g. a scholar is going to use bigger words etc. (bit of an old trick… can be a weak method).

One way that I approached this was to write a series of ‘biographer’s interviews’ with the characters. In this fictional piece I asked the characters about their background and how they felt about other characters. I used this to tease out their personalities and viewpoints, and understand the dynamics between the characters. The interviewee was not always forthcoming with answers, which revealed which kind of topics they would be touchy about in-story. (Full disclosure: I began to do this for The Rebel Queen but never completed it because I had already written most of the story before I started the interviews. It helped and is a useful technique I will use again… only earlier next time).

  • Sometimes you may realise that your characters are speaking in another character’s voice. You need to fix that by changing the lines, or having the other character speak them.

I am trying to get in the habit of having another window open on the computer, or using sticky notes to remind me who I am writing. If my scene is from a certain character’s point of view then I try to remind myself how they are currently feeling about other characters/plot developments and what they are trying to achieve.

Undoubtedly this is something that takes time to get good at.

Question: What do you do when you’re having a hard time finishing the story?

  • A lot of people have a hard time finishing the story. They get 3/4 of the way through and then think ‘this is horrible’. (Neil Gaiman shares a story where his agent tells him that Neil has complained about every book he has ever written and to “Get back to work and finish it.”

Oh boy, do I know that feeling. I go back and read my own post on Overcoming Writer’s Block and try and work through it. (Next time I write something from scratch I am going to track my own motivation… I think it will be informative).

  • If you’re a discovery writer you won’t know your ending and you’ll probably have to throw out a few endings.
  • Make yourself excited about what you’re writing now (and don’t get distracted by the other ideas). Remind yourself why your current book is cool.
  • Outlining can help.

Question: What to do when you’re bogged down in the middle (i.e. act 2 in a 3-act format)

  • Act 2 often begins with the character solving the problem from act 1, and then discovers a plot twist which makes things worse or a redirection of problem.
  • Often when you are bogged down the characters are too close to solving the problem. Or things haven’t got unexpectedly worse for them yet.
  • If you’re having trouble in the middle it may be there’s not enough going to keep you interested. When you’re bored your readers are going to be bored. What conflicts can you add?
  • Try-fail cycles: Fail the first 2 times. Act 2 is a good place for the first fail cycle. Make it a plausible/solid solution that fails – not a throwaway (pretend that this is the climax to the story and surprise the reader when it fails).

For better or for worse, I’ve kind of turned this on its head in The Rebel Queen. The protagonist isn’t actually the one who is pushing the story along, it’s the actions of the antagonist. The antagonist is like the rapids that are trying to crush the protagonist who is riding in the small boat. So the try-fail cycle is actually referring to the actions of the antagonist. We’ll see how it turns out.

  • Three disaster structure: First disaster between first and second act, second disaster in the dead-centre of the second act, third disaster at the start of the third act. (Metaphorically blow something up right in the middle of the second act).
  • Don’t be too formulaic. They are general frameworks to be used, not patterns to be followed with religious-like fervour.

Question: Trouble naming the characters

  • Sources: spam emails, phone book, anagram inanimate object
  • Language flavour from an atlas: Find a country and then look at common baby names, place names. That helps you find patterns of sounds and makes them consistent across your story world.
  • Don’t agonise over it too much, just get on with it.
  • Mentions an essay by Orson Scott Card

I normally have an ethnic idea in my head and then use google to find names with meanings which reflect the identities of the characters. Other times I just plain make up names that sound cool in my head.

I don’t allow the names of non-major characters bother me much. I have to find something for them to be called as I’m writing it, but I’ve also done plenty of ‘Find and Replace All’ when I decide that a name needs to be changed partway through the writing process.