Say you’re writing about a character who is wildly unlike yourself. Maybe they’re an extreme version of some part of yourself (as all characters tend to be), but their background and lifestyle demands a manner of speaking completely different from anything you know. How do you master a voice that’s not your own?
Start by writing down everything you know about the character whose voice you need to create. Personality traits, occupation, hobbies. Then, prepare to research. You must immerse yourself in the voice you seek to emulate, much like living in a different country to learn the language. Here’s how:
My number one resource for getting into the heads of my audience is the Internet. You can find a blog or forum for just about any group of people – I have stumbled across communities for everything from anorexics to Satanists, to Jews who love bacon (those all purely by accident). Look up social websites centered around your narrator’s profession, hobbies, even medical or psychological conditions. Do this by Googling your subject with words like blog, forum, community, online support group, tips, terminology, handbook, dictionary (i.e. “spoon-collector’s forum” etc.). Take it a step further by asking yourself what products your character would buy, then find the Facebook page of a company that sells said product, and read the fan comments. Google the definitions of terms you don’t know. Bookmark the sites you find and reference them frequently.
Probably the most obvious way to familiarize yourself with a voice is to find a book narrated by a character who is like yours, or at least one that has a lot of dialogue by a character like yours. Type out a few pages of the narrative/dialogue to help give your fingers and your brain a feel for the flow of the language. Reach outside fiction, too – read the memoir of a real person who is similar to your character. If you’re writing period fiction, read something that was actually written during the time period in question.
Movies & TV
Can’t think of a book that has your character type? Try thinking of a movie or TV show that does. Find some quotes from that character on IMDB – and again, type them out to get a feel for the voice.
People watching / eavesdropping
Find a public place where you’re likely to find the type of people you’re writing about. If you’re writing about a college student, hang out in a coffee shop by the closest college campus. If you’re writing about a factory worker, eat lunch at a diner close to a factory, or check out a nearby bar at happy hour. If you’re writing about children, offer to baby-sit your sister’s kids, or hang out at the playground of your local park (just bring a friend with you so people don’t think you’re a creeper). Shop at stores your character is likely to shop at. Visit a church or synagogue they might frequent. Listen to snippets of conversation around you, and surreptitiously write them in a notebook.
Where do you find the voices of your characters? Tell me in the comments!