Friday, September 18, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 3) by Katie Van Ark

In the first two parts of this series, I wrote about my personal struggles with developing voice and how using my character's passions and backgrounds helped me develop a new voice for one of my own works in progress. Today I'll focus on advice and exercises for your own writing.

First, unless you already have a great deal of personal experience or background in the sport, hobby, or culture, please do your research before attempting to use it as a lens. Like all passionate people, your characters must know their passion inside and out for their voices to be believable. I easily wrote about figure skaters because I was one. When I tried to write from a hockey player's perspective? Toe pick trip. I could write games scenes well enough from the random games I'd glimpsed at the rink. But the only time I'd “breathed” hockey was while pinching my nose on my way to the figure skater's locker room. I didn't know hockey well enough to write that character, so I ditched my toe picks for a few weeks to play in a local women's spring league. I followed the Blackhawks in  the Chicago Tribune sports pages, watched game tape, and studied hockey play books like my own personal championships depended on it. Immersing myself in hockey gave me a greater appreciation for the sport and an understanding about what my character loved about it that not only improved his voice but helped shape the entire novel.

Beware of outside influences that may be spoiling your voice attempts. When I was writing Jonah's voice, my script-obsessed character from part two of this series, Dawson's Creek reruns were great. When I was trying to write my hockey character, I now had a jock who sounded like Dawson. I switched to Friday Night Lights and had a much easier time in my writing sessions. Your reading material can have the same effect.

A great exercise to try is one that author M.T. Anderson calls “emblandishment.” This means taking a section of writing that you love and breaking it down into its barest bones. Consider this paragraph from my novel, The Boy Next Door:

It's not a move he needs more practice with but I let my body arch into his touch all the same. I know how to handle myself on ice, but this isn't ice. This is fire. And soon it's going to be out of control. Gabe doesn't push for anything more than my bra but it's enough for me to realize that I'm not thinking about if this is special and that right now I don't give even a single Axel about forever. When his hands are on me, I feel the same sense of exhilaration I feel just before the top of a split triple twist. I'm soaring and weightless.

What this basically says is this: “I enjoy Gabe touching me enough to stop thinking about if it's a good idea. His touch exhilarates me.” Flavoring it with Maddy's passion for skating, though, brings it to life. Try this out on your own favorite passages that I asked you to find in part one, then look for bare bone places in your own work (as I did in part two) and see what you can do.
Finally, don't get discouraged if your search takes awhile. The journey for voice is a new journey with each novel and it has to be. Authors need to get to know their characters, too, and nobody lays everything out on the first date, right? Think about how you bond with another person. We are all unique individuals with vastly different life experiences and interests yet we are drawn together by our shared passions.

I now like to think about my work as cups of tea. I am the canister of loose leaves and I seep a little of my own passions, either existing or new, into each of my novels. And in doing so, I not only give my characters stronger voices but I become more passionate about my writing as well, having infused it with something I love. Brew your own characters' voices by playing up their passions.

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Thanks to Katie for kicking off the school year with this three-part series on developing voice. We've had a studious month, and now it's time for some fun. We'll wrap up the month with another round of Hugs and Hurrahs (send your good news to Patti Richards at by Sept. 22nd). In October, Nina Goebel will reveal our new blog banner created by our new Featured Illustrator! I'll miss our delightful summer banner created by Jennifer Scott, but I'm looking forward to a new season.

Would you like to contribute a guest post for the Mitten blog? Read the submission guidelines here.
Have a great weekend!

Kristin Lenz

1 comment:

  1. Some really great advice. I think it's awesome that you played hockey. But I've decided that none of my characters will ever be hockey players ;)