What do your characters sound like? Can you hear their voices?
If they aren’t speaking to you, you may not be writing fully developed characters.
I thought I knew my characters for Brain Storm, my new hardboiled Angela Richman death investigator mystery. They’d been in my head for two years. I was working on the copyedited manuscript when the questionnaire for the Brain Storm audio book landed in my e-mail box. The audio version of Brain Storm will be out this August.
The producer’s questionnaire has six questions.
Naturally I whined. I’m a writer, right? But when I answered the audio questions, I realized I’d been given a gift.
The first question said, “Is there anything about the main character or other significant characters in your book that you would like us to know before we begin the casting process?”
Sure, I could describe my characters – all 19 of them. I knew what they looked like, who they married, how many children and divorces they had. I knew their successes and disappointments. I’d created them.
Then the audio producer asked, “Please describe the specific accents (regional, national, international) you expect to hear.”
Easy. Brain Storm is set in mythical Chouteau County, Missouri, ten square miles of white privilege near St. Louis. This is the eastern side of the state, where Missouri is pronounced “Missour-ee.” It’s called “Missour-uh” on the other side. I once heard a tape of a guy campaigning for governor. The slick called our great state Missour-uh when he was speaking in Kansas City, on the west side, and Missour-ee in St. Louis.
I wrote to the audio producer that Missouri was a border state in the Civil War, but my local characters would have Midwestern accents, not Southern ones.
I described the tone and the narrative point of view. Then I went back to the copyedits.
And continued reading about Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt, a brain surgeon. I‛d described this important character as having a soft Kentucky accent. Except at least once in the book, I said Dr. Tritt was “loud.” He’s not supposed to talk that way. I got rid of that misleading “loud,” and Dr. Tritt was once more himself.
Then there was the hair stylist, Mario. In the questionnaire, I described him as a “talented, compassionate man who wants to do make-overs on every woman he meets. Gay and extremely handsome. Speaks English with a slight Cuban accent.”
But as I read the manuscript, I realized that description wasn’t clear enough. How would the voice talent read Mario‛s part? The hair stylist was important to Brain Storm. In my mind, I saw Mario, dressed in fashionable black. Then I heard him speak — and hoped the voice talent wouldn‛t fall for the gay hair stylist stereotype. So I explained Mario was gay, but not stereotypically flamboyant.
As I read through the copyedited manuscript, I not only saw my characters – I heard them. And noticed sometimes they didn’t quite sound like themselves.
This was not a major rewrite, just little tweaks. Katie the assistant medical examiner cussed constantly. I had to explain that she wasn’t really foul-mouthed – her swearing “was more stylish than obscene.”
One by one, I listened to each character. And decided that audio questionnaire wasn’t extra work.
It was sound advice.