Doing the last article using examples gave me an idea.
I tried to keep emphasizing that what I like isn’t necessarily what everyone will think of as good writing in the process of giving general advice. But why not write about why I like what I like, and why I write the way I write?
Every author has a ‘voice’ they need to find for themselves, something that makes their work distinct and recognizable. So why not ask what my voice sounds like?
This is usually way more obvious to an audience than an author. The sound of your voice echoes the sounds of your thoughts, and it’s hard to hear your own thoughts clearly. It’s not like being able to listen to a recording of your own voice. You can get that icky feeling, but still not get what it sounds like to other people.
This seemed like an interesting follow up, for two reasons. First, so I could try to work out for myself what’s distinct about my writing, and figure out my own voice. Two, to try to explain the reasons for it, once it’s pointed out to me.
Before we do that, let’s first establish that I have friends who agree I have a specific voice. A style that’s identifiable enough that they recognize it as an influence on their works.
That my friends consider this a sincere compliment establishes something else that may need a longer article to unravel, so let’s not digress too much.
Let’s take a really broad view first. Most of my readers, and some of my editors, have described my work as sentimental and introspective. So why do I think that would be?
I think it’s probably because I write characters first, and then I write a plot. Which is something that gives the story you end up with a different feel to writing a plot first, then writing characters that fill roles in a story. This second process often feels neater and tidier, which is why other authors would prefer that, but having characters first tends to give the story a more sentimental vibe, and I happen to prefer sentimental and introspective.
The second person in that picture I posted, “Aragon”, for instance, thinks of characters only as tools that serve the plot he wants to write. His stories do feel a lot more structured, and precise, as a result.
It’s kind of fun to think of how these preferences for tone and storytelling end up resulting in different skillsets. It means practicing the stories you like might end up in a bit of a feedback loop as to what you get good at.Aragon’s preferences have made him a much stronger editor than I am: When the characters are a lot more flexible, it’s easier to take a hammer when adjusting bits that don’t work.
On the other hand, I think I’m a much better planner than he is, and a better abstract theorist. (He agrees.) Since my stories are a lot more brittle, I’m incentivized to work out exactly what I’m doing before I even have an introduction written.
I think it makes us a really good team for working on each other’s stories, too. Different voices can kind of harmonize, like that.
Let’s talk a bit more about what I mean by my stories being ‘brittle’, though, and why I need to plan in a different way because of my preferences.
As I said earlier, my process goes like this: I write a character arc first, and then I try to work backwards into a narrative that causes the character arc.
That requires much more getting-it-right-the-first-time writing, as it’s a lot more difficult to jump around an evolving mindset, and it makes it difficult to keep a consistent voice. It also makes it harder to change characters completely, or decide to go a different direction with the story, because the narrative arc and character arc are kind of built around each other.
A different author, like Aragon, can just focus on working out what happens, and then making it mean something in the editing process. Episode-format TV series are more likely to do it that way. TV where the arc goes over the whole season, though, probably fit much closer to mine.
Already, just in the decision to write plot or characters as a priority, you’ll find a massive shift in the feeling of the stories you tell. It’s also probably a decision that you might never realize you made, in the same way you probably don’t think about whether you lead with your left or right leg when you start walking.
It’s one thing to plan a story. But how often do you plan how you plan a story? And then, plan how you plan a story?
Let’s get more personal.
Let’s talk about my personal cliches, my recurring habits.
There’s a fantastic piece of writing advice: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”. But everyone wants something more than something else. We have priorities.
Emphasizing a character’s priorities, proving that they’re not giving lip service? Showing who they really are under pressure? It’s one thing to see who they are when their back is against the wall and they have no options.
I think it’s more powerful to give them a good out, and show they never even consider it.
“If you give up now, I’ll give you wealth beyond measure. I’ll give you power over men. I can give you peace.”
“Will you give me back my wife?”
“Then you have nothing I want.”
There’s an easy way here, and a hard way.
There was never any doubt they were going to go the hard way.
This, I feel, is what makes a character story. It’s the moment a story stops being about what anyone should do in a situation, and about what this person does. The easy option should appeal to any reasonable person. It’s not a false dilemma, where the offer is a trap if it were taken. No, it’s exactly what it appears to be. An easier way out.
By not taking the easy way out, it shows what this character is willing to sacrifice everything else for – what was left out of that offer.
It also shows that the narrative tension is proactive, rather than reactive. If the protagonist can ‘solve’ the story if they’re willing to sacrifice something, then it means you’re writing them as proactive rather than reactive. They have to work towards their better solution.
A reactive character would take the lesser win. A reactive author would have to accept that solution as well. By denying the lesser victory, the character has to forge a new, more difficult path, which means they can’t just be led by the narrative. They’ve seen where that would take them, and it’s not good enough.
Working out an offer that you’d accept, but your protagonist wouldn’t, tells you a lot about both your character and the story you’re trying to tell with them.
It’s a bit dated now, and the writing is intentionally quite purple because I was writing a steampunk story. I’d probably write it pretty differently now. Still, I’ll quote it unedited because it’s the paragraph that gave me one of my favourite personal tools.
Elizabeth’s doorbell was, naturally, a work of utter genius.
The button itself was a bronze nub set in a decorative latticework, all elegant curves and angles. Pressing the button depressed a plunger into a network of sealed pipes filled with an oily fluid. This oily fluid carried that force to open miniature valves throughout Elizabeth’s residence. These valves were connected to the main steam supply which let through a trickle of its potential force through small, modified steam whistles, filling the library with sweetly-toned piping and trilling.
Though rarely used, the engineering marvel that cost a very hefty sum of coin and brainpower to implement would alert Elizabeth Weiss when someone was at the door with the blissful ring of silver chimes, as if through a spring breeze.
You can imagine the expression on Elizabeth’s face, then, when she heard three loud, hammered knocks at the door.
It’s pretty early on in the story, where I was still trying to establish Elizabeth’s character. As a result the self-congratulating tone, the rigor of the details, the perfectionism, the needlessly formal and technical language for something that could all just be condensed down to; “She had a steam-whistle doorbell”? All that serves a purpose on its own, to establish character and setting.
Because it serves that purpose, and because it’s so egregious about serving that purpose, it stands on its own without needing the subversion. It paints a pretty picture.
I personally believe that good storytelling comes down to being able to bring up as pure and as powerful emotions as possible, and being able to change between them sharply. This style reflects the logical conclusion of that philosophy.
It’s like a chain lift and a steep drop on a rollercoaster. It’s about spending a long paragraph building as clean and crisp an emotional idea as possible, and then using that built up energy to snap into something different.
“Aragon” recently beat me at my own game with this particular Rossism, talking about a character’s, Emily’s, private library. The anonymised version of it here would be:
The room was the special library. This was no mean feat—to be allowed in the special library, you couldn’t be just any book. You had to be read at least once, and you had to be loved; most of the books on the shelves were old, well-worn, and had been with Emily since childhood. A very select few were newer, but still important enough to make their way in.
Vincent was allowed in the special library.
As a sidenote: Sometimes you’ll find other people will do your ‘thing’ better than you do, because their skillset is better suited to using it. “Aragon” is a much stronger micro-level author than me, for instance, so he tends to run rings around me doing my own schtick.
If this happens to you, my advice is to be flattered, to take it as a sincere compliment, to take it to heart that your technique can be so effective in other hands, and to poison their drink next you meet them for their insolence.
Most people smile when they’re happy. Most people frown when they’re sad. Saying they’re smiling or frowning is better than just saying ‘they looked happy’ or ‘they looked sad’. But you can go a step further by working out how a particular character shows they’re happy or sad though.
This ties into the best advice I ever read about writing. Don’t use thought verbs, don’t show conclusions. Work out how to make the audience follow the train of thought that got you to those impressions.
It’s more immersive to give details that lead to more obvious conclusions. By having to visualize what the gesture is, it not only gives them a more vivid mental image of the character, but it gives them clearer ideas of the scene to hold in their head.
Repeated behaviours and gestures also build context over time, giving the audience a better understanding of what they mean, which can make them feel closer to the character.
Also, by having to think of these gestures and actions it forces you, the author, to have a deeper understanding of how a specific character thinks and acts, which allows you to write them more convincingly.
In practice, a character should never be “obviously anxious”.
The neurotic scholar looks to the side and bites down hard on the first joint of his index finger.
The leather jacketed jock cups his hand over his mouth and squints at nothing in particular, getting up to start pacing the room.
The bounty huntress folds her arms across her chest, balling her fists hard enough to flex her biceps taught.
As a final addendum, if you can’t think of an interesting or unique gesture for that specific character, you might not be writing an interesting character.
Let’s start with a simple, but not-obvious statement: even if you like writing larger-than-life characters, like I do, they don’t have to be the best at everything they do. In fact, it can be more impressive when they’re not, because it’s easier to understand.
A friend of the author, who writes under the name Edward Pink, once wrote a paragraph about a skilled thief that went something like this:
It was a fairly traditional filing cabinet lock, made tricky by the round key shape. A locksmith could have had it open in about five minutes, but for Gilda it might take ten or fifteen, time she didn’t have.
By not surpassing a full time, professional locksmith, Gilda’s skill is much easier to contextualize. That context makes her skill – which is still impressive – have more of an emotional impact, because we can picture how much practice we would need to get that good. It’s much harder to picture being the person who’s just better than the professionals, and not being able to picture it means the idea loses emotional weight.
So that’s the premise I’m working from. A character’s abilities feel more impressive when an audience has a real understanding of what they know. I feel like being able to understand what makes a character good at something will go a lot further than just showing off how good they are at something.
This isn’t saying go to extremes to study what you write, though. If you write an anthropologist, doing a degree on anthropology just to write them authentically is going to be a big waste.
This comes back to advice I’ve previously given—take your current conceptions about something, your current idea about how something works. Have another character bring up that assumption. Then, go research just that assumption, and have the ‘expert’ character correct the first character with that.
Then, if there’s something really cool or interesting you find in the process of learning why you’re wrong, throw that in, and characterize their expertise by how the expert adds it. Are they an excited hobbyist, bubbling over with that extra information? Or are they an annoyed veteran, who’s laying down the law.
It saves you a lot of time and legwork to just research enough to write those small moments, but it goes a long way to characterizing an expert. It’s also just an entertaining detail to your audience, who might also have learned something.
This goes a lot farther than saying; “Trust me, they’re really good at it, and they can just do the things I say they can”. While this can work for rogues and thieves, who thrive on being inscrutable, I feel like it suffers when it’s played on scientists, engineers, and scholar characters.
The handwaving too often devolves into ‘technobabble’. Meaningless jargon and buzzwords that you’re not meant to understand, because it’s just a tool to tell the audience that this very smart character can do the thing they say.
While it has a time and place, especially in satire, just a few small, researched moments go a lot further to buying credibility in those scenes when Mad Dr Manning pulls out a ray gun of their own design.
If I write an old man, I have been told, they tend to not just be an old man. They are The Old Man Who Raised The Entire Village By Himself. If I write a teacher, they are The Teacher.
And I never write a character who is just stupid.
Stupid characters are a favourite crutch of many authors. The problems I have with ‘stupid’ can also apply to any flawed character who’s just such a catastrophe that you go “But… why?”
You know, backstories about abusive parents who beat their kids, and the Dad just starts smacking the kid around for not getting them a beer fast enough? Where it’s obvious that the point is the effect it had on the kid, but you’re looking at the parent and going; “I don’t see why you would be like this”?
Let’s be clear. I’m not saying these people don’t exist. There are, unfortunately, a lot of them. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction, though, has to feel satisfying in some way. And these characters don’t feel satisfying to me because they’re not people, they’re forces of nature. You’re not even meant to think of them as people, really.
That can serve a purpose in other stories. For me, though, I think even the characters that are just meant to be monstrous in some way are much better when you can understand the appeal of their behaviour, when you know what their reasons are. Actually being able to understand that makes the actions themselves more intense, because you have a deeper reaction to how they violate your personal morality and decision making.
Stupid characters don’t even get that. Stupid characters are an absence of decision making. They’re just there to make things harder for everyone around them.
Stupid characters introduce dramatic tension and conflict that feels contrived. In comedies, contrived tension can be great – contrived isn’t inherently a bad thing.
It’s bad for me personally, though, because I try to write idealized characters. Not people as they are, but people as they’d want to be. They still have flaws! Lots of them. But the appeal of my characters is going to be wanting them to do better, and whether they succeed of fail at that.
In short, you’re supposed to root for my characters in some way, even when they’re at their worst selves. Or you’re supposed to understand why they fuck up in the way they do.
This means that introducing conflict that feels contrived is going to feel like bullying. It’s going to feel cruel and unwarranted. It’s going to feel petty.
As another note, “Aragon” gets around this problem by writing unlikable characters. This is an elegant solution, because his surrealist comedy thrives in contrived situations. This means that the same contrived suffering feels cathartic, because frankly the characters probably deserve it.
Another author does the exact opposite of what I do, and they can still be absolutely correct. That’s because this really isn’t general writing advice, but more me demonstrating how my voice reflects my story preferences. This is also why I think general writing advice can’t really help you past a certain point.
None of these, as individual elements, would neatly translate to another’s work. Another author, taking them in isolation, couldn’t really write a story like I do. And, even if they love reading my stories, they probably wouldn’t want to write like I do.
I also spent a lot of time talking about what other people said about my writing, because even though once things were pointed out to me I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing, I’d probably have never thought to think about it, though, until someone told me about it.
Figuring out what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to write, involves listening to your audience and your editors. They can usually tell you better than you can what you’re going for. It also helps if you just write a lot, so they can see common trends across your work, rather than just what you’re going for in any individual piece.
Personally, I first started realizing a lot of these when people started making jokes about my writing. Making fun of the trends I’d write. It might be really tempting to take them personally, but the truth is you should probably pay a lot of attention to the jokes people make about your work.
You should be more worried if someone can’t make a joke about your personal cliches, or your voice. If they can’t parody you.
Finding your voice is really important, and it can’t really be taught. There isn’t a secret or a shortcut to finding it. It’s a result of figuring out what stories and ideas and tones you like writing, and figuring out emphasizing what you like about them, the parts you like about them.
If you practice it enough, at some point it goes from self-indulgence to an identifiable brand.
If you read my last article about writing before this one, you might remember I said something about good writing not feeling like real writing because it feels like a guilty pleasure? That’s really what finding your voice is ultimately about. Finding what you consider a guilty pleasure when you’re writing, and doing as much of it as possible, is probably the only way to find out what your voice is.
Only you really know what you love reading. Your authorial voice comes when you figure out how to love writing it.