The Fire in Fiction – Giving Characters Voice

I’m going to do things a little different for today’s entry. First, I’m skipping comments for chapter 4 (“The World of the Novel”) of The Fire in Fiction. The advice was solid, but I didn’t find it particularly inspiring. Second, I thought these entries could benefit from more structure. Instead of simply analyzing Maass’s chapters, I’m going to use this as a place to brainstorm ideas for my own work or practice writing exercises. I’d love it if you joined me. The more comments these posts receive, the more inspiration there’ll be to go around.

Today I want to look at chapter 5 of The Fire in Fiction, “A Singular Voice.” In this chapter, Maass discusses the amorphous beast known as authorial voice. Maass suggests narrative voice is partly derived from our characters’ distinct qualities (or quirks), perspectives, and reflections (in addition to diction, syntax, POV, etc.).

The books that come to mind when I think of strong authorial voices all have distinct, well-defined characters with clear opinions and outlooks on life. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell is a great example.

So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!

Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell

Already from the first line, we see the protagonist has a unique perspective and speaks in a blunt, conversational tone. The whole book feels this way, and it never gets exhausting. If anything, the narrative voice made me feel more drawn to the main character. The voice is strong, and it makes the entire book more compelling.

This brings me to a problem in my current novel manuscript. My characters are all suffering from a pretty serious case of vanilla-itis. Sure, my protagonist has desires and faces challenges, but it’s rare for his voice to come through. He doesn’t express his opinion enough, and that’s not good. To remedy this, I wanted to create a short list of real-life quirks I’ve witnessed over the course of my thirty-five years. Sure, most of them won’t apply to my story’s 15-year-old protagonist, but I’m trying to get the juice flowin’.

  • My uncle knew a guy in the Navy that hated seeing people spit on the deck so much that he’d have them spit into his hand. He’d slurp it up.
  • I knew a kid that developed a fear of walking through doors. He’d pause to collect himself before crossing every threshold.
  • The sound of country music playing in the evening used to terrify me. I suffered awful nightmares for a few months as a kid, and I associated the bad dreams with my Mom listening to Country Music Television before bed.
  • My wife hates the combination of fruit and bread.
  • I’ve been to the beach and pool several times with one of my best friends. He’s never taken his shirt off.
  • My sister used to fold her blankets and sheets in her sleep.
  • I worked with a teacher who was deathly afraid of cotton balls.
  • That same teacher stole another teacher’s yogurt every day for a week straight. When confronted about it, he denied it.
  • The couches at my childhood best friend’s house growing up were covered in plastic.
  • I used to believe (and still sort of do) that turning a full circle in the shower would bring me bad luck.

The items in this list certainly don’t define each of these people, but it gives us an honest, if strange, glimpse into their psyche. What a cool way to add depth to a character and make your novel stand out.

What are some quirks you’ve witnessed in real life? What are some you’ve given your characters? Leave a reply below, and let’s see how many strange and interesting things we can collect and share.

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