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Harness Empathy: Find the Voice

The writer's 'voice'. The 'voice' of a protagonist. Voice. Voice. Voice. In all my literature and writing studies, the importance of voice has been emphasised time and time again.

The glorious oracle that is Margaret Atwood (in 'On Writers and Writing' - I highly recommend you give it a read), discusses the role of an author. How much of the content is theirs? And how much stems from their character? Where does the voice come from?

It seems that perhaps fiction exists in this suspended, intangible world where our essence is present yet we are ironically, entirely absent.

Margaret goes on to suggest that authors should not be asked about their book once it is published, as it's very likely that they are no longer the person they were when they wrote it. Does that send a shiver up your spine too?! (You have got to love Margaret and her mind-bender microphone drop moments).

For my current novel, I enter into the voice of a twenty-four year old male working through anxiety, the loss of his mother, a broken relationship with his father, and a general cynicism of the world - all in a science-fiction realm where an external plot is required to drive the story.

The book is written in first person, present tense. So how the hell do I become this character? How do I speak as him, and have it read as believable?

I'm no expert, but I do believe that being a writer is more than simply writing.

Writing is tangible research, embracing differences, learning the intricacies of the human experience from angles that may be unfamiliar.

I liken it to obtaining a superpower. That is- our empathy.

Writing as another person is to become that person, to hear their thoughts, act on their behaviours and identify their responses to various situations. We use empathy to train ourselves into their being. And then, it's as if the characters themselves dictate where the story goes.

This can all seem rather vague and ambiguous, so I'll share a few practical ways to go about it. At least, what has worked for me.

1. Shift Into Your Protagonist's Subconscious

Get out the headphones and choose music you feel represents the mood of your character or their story. Close your eyes and allow yourself to become absorbed by them. I'm not talking about some type of voodoo meditation - this is a practical exercise in harnessing your empathy.

You know your protagonist's backstory, their relationships, fears, joys, etc. So take some time to simply think about it. Visualise walking where they've walked, living with people they've lived with, existing in their environment- and take note of what it all feels like.

(I'm not talking Norman Bates level - maybe a few notches down toward sanity).

2. Try 'Method Writing'

If your story takes place in space, or some other foreign world, this might be tricky. But no matter what, I think it can still be utilised as a valuable tool.

For example; as the death of my protagonist's mother is vital in his development and outlook on life, I visited my local cemetery. I opened myself to the emotions and thoughts the atmosphere sparked, and reflected on them. In doing so, I found a truth and honesty that I could apply to my story and the inner workings of my character. I often find myself thinking- fiction reveals non-fiction.

3. Source Audio Narration

I tried this recently to help myself fall into a male voice (as a female writer). Using the website Fiverr, I located a voice talent similar to that of my protagonist. A young, British male. He narrated the first chapter of my book, and delivered the audio file directly to me.

It was finished within days, and I was charged by word count. A relatively inexpensive and incredibly handy tool for my writing. It's a little alternative, but in my opinion, a fantastic research method/source of motivation.

Not only will it assist with voice, but also pacing, rhythm and sentence structure.

There are numerous ways to engage the voices of our characters, and many of them exist beyond the glow of our laptop screens.

We have been blessed with an empathy that insists we dig deeper into complex webs of personality and experience outside ourselves. In doing this, I firmly believe we become better writers, and in turn, better people.


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