In the last 5 years, I’ve published 59 main character guys (an odd number because of having three in Changes Coming Down) … oh, and Sam, in The Family We Make. So sixty men. One of my biggest challenges is creating believable and distinct “voices” for my characters. Ideally, you should be able to identify my main characters just from how they sound in their POV. Paul should be different from Tony. Mac should be distinct from John. I used to just wing it, but as I try to hone my craft, this is an area I’m working on.
I try to vary the guys’ phrases and expressions. One man uses short words and sentences, and the other tends to ramble. Or one MC calls everyone “dude” and the other wouldn’t be caught dead saying that. Especially when the POV alternates between two or more characters, differences become important.
I recently wrote a Canadian MC in Unsafe Exposure, and finally had a reason to write about ending up “in hospital” instead of “in the hospital.” What was once an unconscious quirk of mine from my Canadian roots, which actually distanced readers from some of my early American MCs, now becomes a genuine point of distinction between my two guys.
One of my favorite books with distinctive character voices is Melusine by Sarah Monette, a fantasy with one gay character and one straight. Felix says, “I could stand the humiliation no longer…the news would spread throughout the Mirador of the degredation I thought I had escaped.” Mildmay says, “Watch it, Milly-Fox. Watch your stupid self. You fucking well know better.” This book is written in alternating first person, which can be tricky, but the reader never once loses track of whose POV they’re in, because vocabulary, sentence length, contractions, swearing, all are distinct.
Of course, the differences also have to work with the characters. In this case, Mildmay is the son of a prostitute, raised in the slums, and living as a petty criminal. Felix’s looks and magical talent meant that he was groomed, implacably and viciously, to act fit to move in high social circles. The contrasts are not just useful, but appropriate. And yet, since this is mainstream fantasy, I also have no doubt that some readers abandoned it at the second or third “fucking” for less foul-mouthed stories — a risk the author chose to take.
Regional accents are great but can be tough to render on the page. An author may have to chose between clarity and interest, between authenticity and caricature. One popular M/M that does this beautifully, IMO, is Glitterland by Alexis Hall. One MC is a writer battling major depression, the other a young and optimistic Essex guy. Darian says, “But, seriously, babes, what’s your name? My nan told me not to go wif a geeza what won’t tell you ‘is name.”
Darian’s accent is colorful, and gives a key to who he is. In particular, it helps us understand why Ash is reluctant at first to take him seriously, or to introduce him to friends. But again, it’s a risky choice on the part of the author to go this far from the standard character voice. There are definitely people who have not picked up this book or who gave up on it, because the accent was difficult to follow, or annoyed them.
Another book with a great character “voice” that brings the MC’s personality to light is Muscling Through by J.L.Merrow. In that book, Al’s verbal simplicity, his straightforward phrasing and thought patterns, reinforce the simple goodness of who he is. Merrow skillfully gives us a character who is not the sharpest tool in the box, but whose quirks and limitations are so sympathetically integrated that they invoke admiration, not pity. It’s effective, memorable, and a good contrast to college professor Larry.
Voice becomes more difficult when your two characters are not very different from each other. “Write what you know” means I end up with a lot of white, middle-class, Midwestern guys in my books. I’m trying to do better with jotting down little notes to myself. “He says ‘damn it’ a lot.” “He uses Minnesota phrasing – ‘You want to come with’ or ‘You betcha,’” or “He’s an artist so he uses visual analogies, colors and light,” or “He’s a scientist so uses longer and slightly more formal phrasing.” There have to be clear distinctions between the guys beyond just the color of their hair, eyes or… balls.
Editing is sometimes an opportunity for me to go back and try to contrast the voices better. I can make changes so the POV of one character ends up a little rougher and choppier than the other. Readers may not notice it consciously, but that kind of change can add to the feeling that they are switching back and forth between two distinct men. As long as I. Don’t. Over do it.
My writing is always a mix of my desire to tell stories, a bunch of practice, and working the craft. As I continue to publish, the craft feels like the area where I still have lots of room to improve. Creating more distinct and consistent character voices is a work in progress for me, and finding the little tricks that help me do so is a lot of fun.
Are there books you’ve read where the character voice on the page is so distinct you would recognize them if they showed up in some other random story? Books where the difference between the characters was sharp and clear on the page? I might add to my list Ondry from Lyn Gala’s Claimings, Tails and Other Alien Artifacts. His is an alien perspective —not simply a human with a purple skin, but an unfamiliar world view that flavors thoughts and descriptions as well as actions. I do enjoy books like that. I’m working on the craft of creating distinct characters, who will live on the page in every detail, not just of appearance and action, but of voice as well.
Kaje Harper grew up in Montreal, and spent her teen years writing, filling binders with stories. But as life got busy, the stories began to just live in her head. The characters grew, met, endured, and loved, in any quiet moment, but the stories rarely made it to paper. Her time was taken up by work in psychology, teaching, and a biomedical career, and the fun of raising children.
Eventually the kids became more independent and her husband gave her a computer she didn’t have to share. She started putting words down in print again, just for fun. Hours of fun. Lots of hours of fun. The stories began piling up, and her husband suggested if she was going to spend that much time on the keyboard she ought to try to publish one. MLR Press accepted her first submission, the M/M mystery Life Lessons, which came out in May 2011. Kaje now has many novels and short stories published, including Amazon bestseller The Rebuilding Year, and a selection of free short stories and novels in a variety of gay romance genres, available on Smashwords and elsewhere. She currently lives in Minnesota with a creative teenager, a crazy omnivorous little white dog, and a remarkably patient spouse.
Goodreads Author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4769304.Kaje_Harper