February 28th, 2012

Want to write a great voice? Listen.

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

On Sunday night, Meryl Streep won her third Academy Award for IRON WOMAN.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but Streep is amazing as Margaret Thatcher.  It’s not only the makeup and hair that makes Streep look like the former prime minister, it’s the voice.  Streep nails it.  Just like she did with her roles of Julia Child, and Sophie, and Baroness Karen vo Blixen-Finecke. All are amazing performances. In fact, Streep is known as the actress than can do any accent like it’s her own.  How does she do it? And what does that mean for a writer creating voice in a character?

Once, during an interview right after the Golden Globes, Streep said she tries to really understand inside how the person speaks, then she goes to ethic neighborhoods and hangs out in cafes “to corroborate” what she’s thinking. Her process is pretty simple. She listens. People speak with a cadence, a pacing, a certain way of phrasing words, and Streep is a master at hearing that rhythm.

We’ve all heard how a voice comes to a writer and whispers in his or her ear.  For the rest of us, we can learn something from Streep’s technique. Listen. Find people who have similarities to the characters you’re writing, and corroborate if the voice in your head sounds like the voice on the page. Listen for voices in the coffee shop, in the grocery store, or in the mall. For most of us, one day in a middle school or high school would probably be an audible experience worth writing about!

Think about how your character’s voice should sound from the inside.  The slang.  The syntax.  The inside jokes.  Listen for the breaths, and the beats, and the pauses.  Listen for what’s said and isn’t said.  Listen.

Continue listening with your eyes.  Read John Green and Nancy Werlin and Franny Billingsley and Laura Halse Anderson.  Let yourself be influenced by great writers you admire. Pay attention to how they put voice on the page.  You don’t need to note every noun and comma, but notice the flow of the language.  The sound on the page.

I love the line from Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys, “Above all, a quirky human voice to hang a story on.”  Listen for that quirky human voice everywhere.  To write a really great voice, listen.  Just listen.