I love to write in different voices: different class, different age ranges, but until now my voices have all been familiar – primarily female and primarily European. I recently tried my hand at writing in a totally new voice. You can read it here.
This exercise made me think about how we craft our characters’ voices. After all, we create these guys – so where do their voices come from?
I have two children under five; British, but raised in France. You should hear how they imitate voices. They can do upper-class British, working-class British, adult French, children’s French… Without being spoken to directly or even seeming to listen, they pick up a voice, put it on and test it out. They learn through trial and error and they are not bashful about how they sound along the way.
But parents will have noticed that children don’t just learn by imitation: they form a rule system which they then apply broadly to other situations. That’s how we end up with children who have ‘getted off the bus’. Children take a sample and infer the rules. Now, isn’t that exactly what we do as writers, when we create a character?
Adult brains appear to be wired differently to children’s. Whilst children process language subconsciously, adults have to think it through and translate as we go. As writers, does that mean we put ourselves in the skin of our character and then try to put our words into their voice? That sounds clumsy, but somehow great writers pull it off with panache and carry readers along for the ride. How is it done?
When we are creating our characters’ voices, how do we move from inspiration to appropriation, now we are all grown up?