How to write in an other-worldly voice

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The robot bares his soul on paper. Photo by Mirko Schaefer.

Last week we talked about how to craft an authentic voice by listening to the voices around you and in media. But what if your character is a type of person you can’t find in any of those places? What if they’re from the future, of which we know little, or from the ancient past, before there was a written language to record how they spoke? What if they are not even human—an alien, an angel, a robot dinosaur?

What if you want a voice just as unique as the character? A voice that will blow your readers’ minds?

Here are some steps to help you create one.

NOTE: this is a list of ideas, not a checklist. All will not work for your character, and there are probably additional methods you will need. This is simply a starting point. Choose wisely, but don’t be afraid to experiment!

 

First – a few questions to get you in the mindset:

Is the narrator intimately familiar with the modern human world? Would he be able to use and understand our weird human idioms and expressions?

Imagine a day in the life of this character. What does he spend most of his time doing? How does this effect what he thinks and talks about?

If this character doesn’t speak English, whatever you write is a translation. Ask yourself what his native language is like, compared to English. Is it as descriptive? Is it more rigid? Is it simpler, or more complicated? Are there some concepts in his language that can’t be translated to English at all?

Are there human or earthly concepts he cannot understand? Does he understand gender? Light and dark? The passage of time? Physical space?

Will this story be like describing color to a man born blind, and if so, who is the blind man—the character, or the reader?

 

Now, some fun things to try:

  • Remove all idioms and clichés – or get them intentionally wrong
  • Remove any pop culture references
  • Make up pop culture references
  • Occasionally try, then fail, to describe something, then explain that human words are inadequate
  • Replace common words with words you make up, or words from an obscure human language: especially replace words that are measurements, such as in time (minutes, hours, years), distances (feet, meters) as well as days of the week, etc.
  • Change the spelling of words – think of Olde English, or 1337 (leet)
  • Remove common words like articles (a, an, the), like in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Cut words down to their roots, eliminating ings and eds and the like
  • Eliminate punctuation, using only line- and paragraph-breaks to differentiate between phrases and sentences
  • Use all the senses except sight in your descriptions
  • Describe from a sixth sense, like telepathy – bonus points if you can make up a sense nobody has thought of before
  • Don’t use adjectives
  • Don’t use pronouns
  • Write normally, then remove every fifth word and see what happens
  • Describe events at a molecular level
  • Describe events as if watching from miles away

 

What wacky voice ideas do you have? Spill them in the comments!

 

Other posts to help you prepare for Voice Week:

When I announced the first Voice Week

How to find your voice – explained in 5 different voices

5 fantastic examples of voice

How last year’s Voice Week went

How to craft an authentic voice through research

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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10 Comments

  1. It’s not super whacky, but in writing an angel character, I made him fully part of the human world with the exception of his inability (or decision, it’s never fully explained) to use contractions. He gets idioms, pop culture references, etc, but when he talks about them, the speech pattern establishes a certain distance that cues characters (and I hope readers) into his “otherness.”

  2. I wrote a short story from the perspective of a blind character once. I probably could have worked harder at the voice (but then, one can ALWAYS work harder) but it was fun describing the world from the view of someone who has never known it through her eyes.

    • Yes! I read a book once about a blind girl, only I didn’t know she was blind until the end of chapter one. It was very well done; I could look back and see the use of all the senses minus sight – the clues I should have noticed.

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  4. I wrote a short story where the main character was a puppet. Not the Pinocchio kind, where he is free willed, but one that is controlled by a puppet master. He is fully aware that every action and thought is controlled by the puppet master.

    I have a question concerning a “voice” to use for a character of mine.
    She was born mute, though somewhere around age 5-9, due to a medical procedure she is given an artificial tongue, vocal cords, ETC. This procedure was performed by her father, who, invented this mechanism and procedure. Her case was also the first attempt at said surgery, and things went wrong. There is a faulty connection between her brain and the artificial speech organs. Her ability to speak would seem very foreign to her not only because she spent much time mute, but also because her tools with which to speak are foreign. This is where my issue is. What kind of speech impediment would she have, and what would it sound like in writing? I have already ruled out stuttering because her tongue works fine. And it can’t be something that would imply her brain is not functioning fully, for she is in fact extremely smart. She quite literally has a book (that she is reading) with her or in her hand at all times. A habit formed as soon as she could read, because if you can’t speak you read.

    • Hmmm. Fascinating question, m’Lord.

      While she may not yet be used to speaking herself, she grew up having people speak to her, and hearing people speak to each other, so she’d understand how conversation worked. But as for the faulty connection between a working brain and a working tongue…I’d do some research on aphasia, a condition following a brain injury that affects language.

      Post brain surgery, my mom had it (and still does, to a much lesser degree). The way the docs explained it to us is this: language is like one of those old-timey telephone switchboards in your brain. Aphasia is like having all those switches pulled out. You still have the switches and the plugs, but it takes you awhile to make the connections.

      The result is a difficulty remembering words when you’re trying to speak – though you don’t have trouble understanding what other people are saying to you. It’s more extreme than when the average person is just tired and “what’s that word for…oh, it’s on the tip of my tongue.” You might get stuck on certain words or phrases, repeating the last thing you said over and over again when you’re trying to say something new. That sounds to me like the type of glitch that could be caused by a faulty connection between brain and tongue.

      I hope that helps inspire something? Generally, experimentation is the key. She sounds like a fantastic character – so does the puppet. It also sounds rather Steampunk, so you get automatic awesome points for that. : )

      • Thank you for your thorough answer. I will defiantly look in to aphasia, as well as experiment and try some of the things suggested above and some of my own. Not to intrude, but from your experience, does it take a considerable amount of patience to talk and listen to someone with Aphasia?

        And, yes both do have Steampunk themes and inspirations. Although the second is the one that is fully intended to be a Steampunk story.

        • Talking to them isn’t a problem – they can understand everything you’re saying to them. The listening side can take some patience. It’s hard to tell how long you should wait for them to think of a word before you start suggesting words for them. Definitely if they get stuck repeating a certain word or phrase you should give them something else to say.

          For instance, right after my mother woke up from surgery, we were testing her memory by asking her all our names. She knew her name and my dad’s right off the bat, but for me and my siblings she kept repeating her own name. Then she’d kind of chuckle and go “no.” She knew exactly who we were and that the name coming out of her mouth wasn’t the right one – she just couldn’t think of the right name. One funny thing – even when the aphasia was at its worst, she could spout long bits of text she had memorized before her surgery, like quotes (“So shall it be written, so shall it be done!”) and the Lord’s prayer.

          So it wasn’t like she had to relearn speech like a child learns to talk. She just had to sort of reorganize the filing system in her head. She’s mostly recovered now (thank God), and talks fine, just a bit slower than she used to. She occasionally can’t remember a word (but we all have that problem). Sometimes it still requires patience to listen – especially when she’s only halfway through a sentence and you already know what she’s saying, but you have to wait for her to finish the sentence before you reply.

          Sorry for the long reply, haha, but I hope that helps!

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