A Thousand Voices – Empathy Exercises #3

Learning to speak in other people’s voices is at least as difficult for a writer as for a performer. In order to do so, and to let the spell of truth we cast for our readers from breaking, we must be able to step out of our own heads, into someone else’s head, and tell that person’s story from their own point of view.

In the last couple of weeks, I suggested you try to step into the heads of real people – listen to their stories, put judgement aside in favor of understanding, and just learn what you can. Learn from other humans what their experiences are like; the more different from your own, the better. Now it’s time to apply that understanding in a fictional way.

The first exercise is see, then invent.

Wherever you are during the day, often there will be other people around. On the bus, at the grocery store, at work, at a game or a show. Observe them. Many of us do this all the time, peoplewatching, observing, but not everyone has recently spent time this way. In addition to looking at those around you, it’s time to start making up stories.

Pick a random person. What are they wearing? What are they carrying? What expression is on their face? What can you overhear them saying as you pass them by? What’s in their shopping cart, how fast are they walking, why aren’t they doing something different with their time? Make up a story about them: their origin story, or the tale of their day. Whatever catches your eye about them, make up a story to explain it.

Now think about the story you’ve made up. It’s just background, a sketch of ideas, so there’s no need for it to have a plot. But it should internally be consistent, and check to make sure it’s not about you – this story should show something about the person that is different to what you would have done in the same circumstances.

Do that for lots of different people, covering age ranges, genders, races, abilities and as much other diversity as you can manage. Do it a thousand times. If you keep practicing, you get to where a story leaps into your head the moment you see someone, and you tinker with it a bit to make it more interesting or more consistent. You’ll find that these storylets spark real stories, real characters that you might be interested in writing in.

Everyone has a slightly different voice. Every narrator, every character, every author. Jumping from voice to voice can be dizzying, and at first it may be troublesome not to keep falling into the wrong one. Worse, it’s hard to tell, from the inside, when you’ve done so. But the good news is, practice does improve the process. And once you have let your fiction simmer for a while and go back and read it, you’ll be better able to tell whether you’ve kept the voices straight or not.

The second exercise is seek, then read. Yes, again. I did mention that for a writer, there’s no way to over emphasize how much reading teaches you.

This time, find writers that specifically have excellent and varied character voice. Writers so good at it that they don’t have to label when they change character points of view, because you instantly recognize the voice the story is now being told in. It doesn’t have to be first person, but that is often a pointer to really confident character voice. Read them; once you have made it through the first read and know what the story is, read them again with special attention to how they do that.

I have some recommendations for you, though these are far from the only ones. Got any to add? Please leave them in the comments; they’ll be very helpful to others – and to me!

My top character voice recommendation is always Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn; I highly recommend Tamsin, believably written from the point of view of a rebellious teenage girl when the author is an elderly man from a different culture, and The Innkeeper’s Song, written from several points of view with never a doubt who’s on tap at the moment.

I also recommend Lois McMaster Bujold for character voice; she writes many different characters, often dealing with separate parts of the same history knowing different parts of the information, at different life stages, backgrounds and upbringings. It doesn’t really matter what series of hers you pick up, they will all have the same excellence.

I’d also like to suggest Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series. Although it will break your heart, it will do so in a good cause, and the character voices are as impressive as her plotting, her ungodly sound world building, and her pacing.

These are some of my own favorite authors, and my reading is primarily in the speculative fiction arena, but of course excellent character voice is not limited to a genre. Look around, see whom your friends recommend, ask your critique group (if you don’t have a critique group, get on that) and never forget that if you find something that doesn’t suffice, it proves you’re making judgements about it, in a more informed fashion than you used to. That’s progress!

Next week, we’ll put what you’ve learned into action as we begin to use empathy to make stories that sink their teeth into the reader and never let go. Don’t worry, the reader will return the favor.


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