Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Speak Now or Your Characters Never Will

Guest post by Josh Rutherford
Podium Models by thekirbster licensed by CC BY 2.5

Today I've invited a guest post by Josh Rutherford. I met Josh at a recent multi-author event at Mysterious Galaxy. At this event, each of us (22 authors!) had the opportunity to get up and say a few words. And Josh knew what he was doing! A Toastmasters Club veteran, Josh uses public speaking--and listening to public speaking--as a route to better dialog in his fiction. The topic intrigued me enough to smuggle another fantasy author into Murder Lab. Josh is the author of Sons of Chenia, an epic fantasy rooted in believable dialog influenced by screenplay-writing. Read Josh's post for some sound advice about how and why public speaking can improve the voices of your characters.

Many of us are familiar with the Seinfeld episode where the title character is giving his bit about public speaking. It involves a recycled and universally-held truth that public speaking is the number one fear amongst people. The second? Death. As Seinfeld goes on to say, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

So imagine if someone asked you to speak before an audience? 

Think about how you would feel going up to the front of a room before a group of strangers. Consider the gazes set upon you as you try to contemplate what you would say or how you would say it. Would your nerves be tested? Would you hesitate? Say “Ummm,” ten times? Perhaps twenty? If you’re like most people reading this post, the prospect of presenting yourself in such a manner doesn’t appeal. 

So if you have trouble speaking in your own voice, how can you give voice to your characters? 
That is one of the ironies of being a writer. Many of us are introverted. We fit the stereotype of soft-spoken, sensitive souls. Even those of us who are sociable prefer the solitude of a quiet room and laptop to a more active environment. 

Yet such tendencies do not lend us many channels for speaking development. The fact is that public speaking mirrors writing in several ways, the most important being that practice leads to improvement. As you speak more, you become better at it. You stutter or pause less. Your nervousness fades. You are able to compose your thoughts before a group with ease. After a while, you even develop your “voice.”

The benefits of public speaking first piqued my interest two and a half years ago. Back then, I was stuck in a dead end job with no prospect for advancement. My options for alternative careers were bleak. Needing a change, I joined a local Toastmasters club. My goals were straightforward:

1) Improve my public speaking skills
2) Lessen my anxiety about presenting before an audience
3) Network with other members 

As my months with the Toastmasters club went on and I gave my speeches, I did notice positive changes. I felt more confidant before an audience. I spoke better. My presentations began to incorporate more well-timed pauses, hand gestures and rhythms in vocal variety. All these improvements were common and expected. 

But then something else happened . . . 

Toastmasters clubs utilize evaluations in their meetings, which amounts to one member analyzing another’s particular speech and providing suggestions for improvement. By the time I reached my one-year anniversary, I was a seasoned enough member to be called upon for my feedback. Nearly every week, I was assigned a speaker to evaluate. My first few evaluations of prepared speeches were awkward to say the least. I gave rather basic praise to the speakers for coming up and presenting before an audience, followed by some simple suggestions. 

But as the months passed, my powers of analysis morphed. My Spidey-senses started tingling . . . 
Nuances became more apparent. Inflections in tone and pitch stood out to me more. I started to see the speakers not only by what they said, but how – and why – they said the things they did. 
Around this time that I was becoming a better speaker, I was in the midst of writing my first novel, Sons of Chenia. Although a fictional work within the epic fantasy genre, I wanted the characters in my book to be relatable to readers. To that end, I focused on dialogue. 

My concerns with writing dialogue began in the early stages of my career, when I aspired to be a screenwriter. Anyone who has even glanced at a script can tell you that dialogue plays a central role. While books and seminars abound on how to write a screenplay, the general consensus is that characters must speak differently from each other, to avoid the risk of any sounding part of one voice (i.e. the writer’s). 

Fair enough. As screenwriters – and the consultants and instructors who teach them – have more experience on dialogue, I started my novel with such advice in mind. My characters’ dialogue, along with the characters themselves, were each different and identifiable. They were distinct. 

Not so at Toastmasters. Although the other members and I came from various backgrounds and professions – affluent/poor, postgrads/high school dropouts, white/black/Asian/Hispanic – there was not that much difference in the way we spoke. Rather, the contrasts between us were subtle. Those who brought friends lacked even that variation, as they talked much like the visitors they brought, even if their personalities were distinct. 

As my novel writing progressed, it also began to reflect that truth, especially in the dialogue. Sons of Chenia centers around five refugees turned close friends, so I concluded that the way they speak should not be too diverse. The end product was a novel in which their personalities are reflected not by opposing speechcraft, but rather the small disparities in talk we take for granted. I put aside the cookie cutter advice I received from screenplay seminars and classes. I trusted my own instincts and wrote dialogue with what I felt reflected a more natural, authentic way of speaking. As I neared completion of Sons of Chenia, some of the lessons in dialogue I learned included:
Characters can sound the same – it’s OK. Really. You and I usually spend time with people like us. As does more than 99% of the world. And get this – gasp! – we even sound like each other.
Similarity in voices does not have to mean one singular viewpoint – the argument from writing instructors to differ your characters’ dialogue comes from the idea that if we were all to speak the same, then we’d all think the same. It goes without saying that this isn’t true, nonetheless, I find myself stressing this point.
Authentic dialogue is not written as it sounds – while this post has been all about encouraging “real” speech, reading it is a different story. Unless you’re trying to be experimental (or cutesy), you do not need to write out “Umm,” “Ah,” “So,” “You Know,” or any other of the dozens of speech fillers we use in daily life. Many of those are now absent from my speaking, as they should be from my writing as well. The result is not a less authentic me, just a better sounding yet still relatable one.
Dialogue – like characters – does not have to be consistent – have you ever had a friend who just sounded a little off one day? Or maybe you haven’t seen an acquaintance in a while, so that when you meet, she tells you, “You’ve changed . . .” or “You sound different.” That’s OK too. Dialogue and voices, like characters, do not have a perfect arc. Writing professors will beat you over the head with the idea of a character arc, so that you feel the need for their dialogue to reflect such. Fight it, especially if it doesn’t fit your story. Few of us develop in a perfect arc, so why should our characters? For all the speeches I’ve given, even now there are times when I make a mistake and backslide to sound like a novice. Or sometime, I’ll leap ahead in my speaking to sound like a political candidate. Your characters can make those slides and leaps too, especially if the narrative and exposition is supportive to that effect.
As for my speaking, the changes I see in myself now are not extreme. I have not become a Billy Graham or Ted Kennedy or Donald Trump (thank goodness). But I have grown more aware, so my presentation reflects purpose and thought, not rambling and nervousness. 

Which brings me to my final point: how much are you aware of speech?

Do you struggle with speaking yourself? Do your characters talk with singularity? Or even worse, is there too much difference between the voices of your characters, so that your dialogue comes off as a ripoff of some Hollywood blockbuster? 

Whatever you strengths or weaknesses in dialogue, I hold the firm belief that public speaking can only better you as a writer. While the bulk of my post has focused on Toastmasters, many other organizations exist to better your presentation skills, such as the National Speakers Association, Speakers League and various college courses, to name a few. Many others exist through social media groups like LinkedIn or Meetup.com. Each has their pros and cons, but all offer paths to improvement. So try them. Maybe you’ll find your characters’ voices and dialogue improve significantly. Or only slightly. However much your writing changes, at least when you see that Seinfeld bit next time, you will be able to afford to laugh with a wink and smile while telling yourself, “Yeah, I get it. I used to be that way.”

Joshua Rutherford has wanted to be a writer all his life. Through college and the more than dozen jobs that he has had, his passion for the written word has never ceased. After crafting several feature film screenplays and television pilots that were never produced, Joshua tried his hand at writing a novel. Sons of Chenia is the product of that effort. When Joshua is not writing - which isn’t often - he is spending quality time with his wife, Elisa. The two currently reside in San Diego, CA. 

At one time, Chenia was a great country. With various clans spread from north to south, a sacred brotherhood of riders known as the Shepherds roamed the land, protecting their people in the name of their god Ada. But an unspoken horror in the Shepherd city of Sarbin fifteen years earlier has left the Chenians defenseless. As refugees, many have left their homeland while those who have stayed battle enemies both near and far.
Caught between the relative safety of a foreign nation and the atrocities back home is Nicolai, a young man whose own past remains a secret to him. A letter from a distant patriarch in Chenia thrusts him into an odyssey with five of his closest friends, refugees bound by hardship. Through ocean voyages, mountain treks and seedy cityscapes these men return home, only to find it on the verge of invasion from the world’s mightiest empire, Czaria. In the face of a superior force, Nicolai’s memory churns. His once hidden past comes to light, offering a way to salvation for Nicolai and his people yet also threatening to destroy him. With no other option, Nicolai faces all his enemies, both internal and real, in one epic battle to decide the fate of his people. And himself.

Purchase Sons of Chenia in print 

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1 comment:

  1. Wonderful thoughts. I rejoined Toastmasters after a hiatus to write, move and remodel. After a not-as-good-as I'd like reading, I decided to re-up. I shall now pay more attention to others' speeches as help for my dialog, but I really liked what you said. The gospel according to writing instructors doesn't have all the answers. Thanks so much!