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Finding your character’s voice

September 23, 2013

As I write this, I’ve just spent the better part of the last week in bed with the flu. And Netflix. When you’re sick, you really don’t want to get engaged in a new show, where you have to pay attention. Better to go with an old standard, something you know well enough that you won’t try to stay awake so you won’t miss anything.

For me, there was only one show that fit the bill–Magnum, PI. It had everything–Hawaiian shirts, real three-dimensional characters (for 1980s television), and an idyllic lifestyle, if you don’t mind a fake Brit getting in your face from time to time and being chased around by dogs.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Using Magnum as the basis for a literary point is something I’ve done before. But it works this time.

Magnum also has the stereotypical (for TV and print) first-person viewpoint in the form of Thomas’s voiceovers. As the character developed, so did the voiceovers. Rather than being specifically about the case–as in I knew he was lying because he couldn’t keep my gaze–Magnum often detoured, starting with a story about a long-lost uncle, a coach he once had, or some other experience, then relating it to his case. It was a new approach to a cliche. (And not that different than Higgins’ approach, if you think about it.)

Average guy? Drove a Ferrari and dated Dana Delany. I think not.

While you might not dig 80s television or private investigator stories, Magnum is a great and relatively accessible example of finding a character’s voice. In the series, Thomas Magnum, former Navy midshipman, Navy SEAL, and prisoner of war, is a pretty down-to-earth guy. Sure, he had the Ferrari and during the eight years we knew him, he dated Mimi Rogers, Erin Gray, and Dana Delany, but he also had to deal with Higgins and the lads, got audited by the IRS, and had his rubber chicken’s head cut off in a cruel blood feud. He also lost his wife multiple times, found out he had a daughter, lost her and regained her, and got to watch a friend blown to bits by an assassin.

Magnum’s friend Mac buys the farm.

He talked about stuff and small things like helping his grandfather find wild asparagus to take home when he was a kid, but it also dealt with bigger things–like the loss of loved ones.

In a perfect world, this would be businesswear.

His voice had to accommodate all those traits believably or it wouldn’t ring true. It also had to accommodate the things he did in the present, which it also did very effectively. The lessons you can take from this–beyond the obvious intrinsic value of Hawaiian shirts–are that your voice should be unique to your character. It should be the product of your character’s experiences and fit what he or she does in the current. It should cover what your character would cover if he or she were talking to the reader in person (even if you aren’t using first-person narrative, your characters have to have a unique voice).

In other words, you can’t develop your character’s voice until you know him or her pretty well.

It reminds me of a story my grandfather Sullivan used to tell…

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One Comment
  1. September 23, 2013 10:41 am

    This is great Chris. First of all, reruns are my favorite thing to watch when I’m sick for the very reason you expressed. Secondly, my favorite TV show has also helped me with bringing my character’s voice to life. The characters on that show are very distinct, each with their own quirks and foibles. Okay, so the name of the show is Everybody Loves Raymond. I can’t forget my other favorite though, Dick Van Dyke. 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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