What George Saunders Can Teach You About Voice (+5 Ways to Get Your Characters to Talk to You)
George Saunders is one of my FAVORITE masters. His stories are beautiful. His characters are fascinating. I cannot sing his praises enough. He's a freaking genius writer.
My first experience with Saunders (at least, so I thought) was the year his short story collection The Tenth of December came out. It was published with awards and fantastic reviews and it seemed as if he was the new best thing. Curious about all the hype surrounding some guy I’d never heard of, I had to know what he was all about.
I didn’t buy the book, just checked it out of the local library. I sat down after work one day, lounging on the patio of an Irish pub, and started with the very first story: “Victory Lap” (read it HERE!). It was weird. It was immersive. It was unlike ANYTHING I’d read before. I turned page after page confused as could be. I had no idea what was going on in the story or where it could be going. What was this guy doing? What was this story about? I kept reading.
But when I finished? I put the book down on the table. I got goose-bumps. I stared at the wall. I remember staring at those red bricks for a long, long time. He had won. He wrote the BEST story. I could never write another thing because he’d already done it. I’d have to quit writing. I hadn’t read a story that amazing in, I-didn’t-even-know how long. I told everyone I knew about it. I read it aloud to my boyfriend. Saunders was full of surprises, and he had me hooked. I can’t give him enough praise; he’s just too frustratingly good.
(Don’t worry. I made sure to tell him all this in real life when he signed my book, and I fangirled the whole way home.)
Side note: It was at this talk in Pittsburgh that I realized "Victory Lap" WASN'T my first experience with Saunders. He talked of craft elements and what it means to be a writer and referenced another story with bizarre elements that stuck with me. As soon as I got home I found the story in a collection. It was him. I reread the whole thing, along with my fangirl post-it note comments. But we'll save that story for another day.
So, what had Saunders done that made me fall in love with him?
SAUNDERS = AWESOME AT CHARACTER VOICES
The beauty of the short story “Victory Lap” stems from how close Saunders gets to his characters. He uses a third-person limited perspective, but each character’s voice is strong, unique, and characteristic to them as individuals. Saunders says this is a little trick he likes to call “third-person ventriloquist.”
I mean, just check out some of the varying lexicons between the two characters in this story: Allison in “Victory Lap” hears a knock on the door and thinks “in-ter-est-ing” (Saunders). The reader can easily hear her fifteen-year-old girl self. This is juxtaposed right next to the perspective of the awkward neighbor, Kyle, who thinks in phrases like “holy golly” and “oh gar” and “yoinks,” and finds sanctuary in nonsensical obscenities such as “crap-cunt shit-turd dick-in-the-ear butt-creamery” (Saunders). They complement each other beautifully because of their extreme differences in voice.
He also does this in "Fox 8" (get it HERE!) a novella that follows the perspective of a fox who's family is pushed out of their land. Go read this story ASAP and fall in love. Be prepared to LOL, cry, and then read it aloud to everyone you know. I've read this story aloud to SO MANY PEOPLE. Seriously, it's 99 cents and YOU. WILL. LOVE IT.
This attention to tiny details and word-play further complicates and enriches his stories. It truly makes his characters spring off the page and feel completely alive. They do this because they deepen the understanding of the character’s innermost thoughts.
SAUNDERS = AWESOME AT WORD-PLAY TO ENRICH MEANING
The most brilliant word-play I’ve seen comes from the title story, “Tenth of December" (read it HERE!) where an old man attempts to run away from his family and die so they won’t have to deal with him in his old age. He attempts to prevent his family’s suffering, as he suffered seeing his stepfather’s struggle with getting old. On a vocal level, the old man repeatedly messes up his words and has to correct them throughout the story. In this particular passage, he messes them up to expose a strong meaning:
He steps farther to get away from the idea of his stepfather, and so he flees “father and father” (Saunders). On my first read, I totally missed this. It’s so minute, so quick. But it’s an essential attention to language that truly and naturally gets to the heart of this character, making the entire story come to life.
Would the story have functioned without it? Sure. But this careful attention to how language works makes the story authentic, the character believable, and deepens our understanding of this world.
SAUNDERS = AWESOME AT USING HIS OWN VOICE
While Saunders' language is perfect in each story, what I find most interesting is how they all still retain Saunders as well. I heard him read a few sections aloud on NPR and I got hit with another forceful wall-stare of disbelief. The first time I heard him speak, I wasn’t surprised by his pacing or inflection or pitch. I was surprised because I’d already heard HIS OWN VOICE in my own head. When I read his stories alone, he had somehow started speaking, narrating his own stories inside the privacy of my own brain.
What the heck, George! How did you do that!
If you want to hear him read an excerpt to see what I'm talking about, listen to the short NPR podcast interview HERE where he reads from "Victory Lap"!
Saunders is a master of language. He creates believable characters who speak to us authentically. He uses deliberate word choice down to phonetical spellings to create realism and believability, as well as to reveal deep emotions. And he does this all while still retaining his personal voice, putting himself on the page. This is brilliant.
SO, UH, I WANT TO WRITE AWESOME VOICES LIKE GEORGE SAUNDERS. OR, IF I COULD JUST BE HIM, THAT'D BE GREAT.
Me too, buck-a-roo.
(But you don’t want to BE him. Read “George Saunders and the Hemingway Mountain: A Case Study” in the club if you want to know why).
Sometimes inspiration strikes and a voice actually does start talking to you. The voice is real, honest, uncensored, strong, and just talking and talking and talking to the point when you want them to just shut up because they’re starting to be annoying. If only this magical muse from the heavens would just come down and flow through us and give us amazing, realistic voices all the time, right?
Since it’s not, we’re going to try to channel that on demand. Here’s some actionable tips to start writing good voices.
1. BE A GOOD LISTENER.
If you only ever hear yourself talk, it’s going to be difficult to hear your characters, or anyone else. Make sure you're paying attention, truly being open to hearing others, and actually hearing them when they speak. This goes for real-life people, and the characters that may show up in your brain.
2. PAY ATTENTION TO DIALOGUE IN REAL LIFE.
Observe people. Literally go sit down at a cafe or on a park bench or anywhere where there’s people, and listen to what they say. Write down their conversations. This is one of the oldest tricks in the books, but it really really works.
An even better way to do this? Transcribe conversations. When I worked as a journalist, I had to transcribe what people said verbatim. Literally every single word someone said I had to write down. This made me pay attention to how people talk. And, newsflash, they don’t talk linearly. They often don’t finish sentences. And they use a lot of filler words, the “um”s and “uh”s. It’s fascinating. And it’s a great way to really pay attention to Every. Single. Word.
Use your phone and record a conversation you have with somebody. (You should probably get their permission first, don’t be creepy. But assure them that it’s only for personal research and it’s not going to go anywhere.). Ease them into a natural conversation. Get them talking freely, uncensored, and see what they say.
Need some easy prompts to get them going? Here ya go:
- Tell me about yourself
- Tell me a story
- Tell me something funny
- Tell me about your job
The key here is to get them talking. - often things that are intimate and emotionally resonant will do it. The content doesn’t matter here, because you’re only trying to pay attention to HOW they’re talking.
Then write down the conversation verbatim. Word by word. How do they talk? How do you talk when you’re asking them questions? How does the dialogue flow?
Not all of these common ways of talking will show up in your story, nor should they. If you're including all the "um"s and "uh"s and sentence fragments, it will become confusing and boring to your reader. But being aware of how they function will help you make deliberate, realistic choices when you do go back to your writing.
3. QUIET YOUR MIND. LET YOUR OUTPUT BE OPEN.
This is a weird one. But hear me out.
I went into work the other day with BIG questions of my writing. I wanted to figure everything out and I was sending my brain into overdrive mode trying to solve the problem ASAP. It wasn’t working.
So, I checked my problems at the door, and decided NOT to think about my writing for the whole time I was working. All day long I let my mind be empty. I didn’t pressure it to fix anything or solve anything. I thought of nothing. I quieted my mind.
Simultaneously, I let whatever wanted to come out of my mouth come out. I don’t know how to explain this and NOT sound like a crazy person, so I’ll just accept the fact that it is literally a crazy thing.
I didn’t feel like using words that day, so I started saying things like, “Meow” and “fdsjkfds” or just “mahh.” I did this to my co-workers. I did this by myself at the computer. It was stupid. And I sounded like a crazy person (because sometimes I am a crazy person, I guess).
But most importantly, I didn’t care. I wasn’t focused on judgement. I didn’t care about appearing a certain way. I was letting my brain do whatever it wanted to do. I let my output be open.
By the end of the shift, a strike of inspiration lightning came into my brain and this voice I’d never heard before was talking to me. She was telling me her WHOLE story nonstop. And it was amazeballs.
Was this a coincidence? Doubtful. I’d deliberately quieted my mind, created an uncensored vehicle for output, and didn’t care about the results. This allowed enough room in my mind for a strong voice to come through.
If you’re willing to be a crazy person for a day, let your mind empty and your mouth spit out whatever word vomit it feels like. Don’t worry about what everybody else thinks, just exist. I’m sure that with enough time, you’ll make room for your own interesting voices to emerge too.
Do you HAVE to be a crazy person to get this to work? Probably not. The idea here is to stop the censorship part of your brain and let whatever wants to come out, come out. Your goal is to quiet the internal editor and make room for the muse to come through. Walking around and speaking jibberish worked for me. If you have a better way of doing this, let me know.
4. INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTERS.
To really get to know your characters and have them speak authentically, you CAN'T be the one that determines what they say. You have to get out of the way and let them tell their own stories in the way that makes sense to them.
In order to make this happen, you’ve got to get them talking freely and uncensored, just like you did for your real-life interviews.
So, what do you do? Interview them.
Act as if you’re interviewing your character. Ask them the same type of questions you asked your real-life person - tell me about yourself, your work, something funny, a story, that kind of thing. But also dig deeper. Ask them to tell you about a time that made them feel vulnerable, when they felt scared, when they wanted to punch a wall. Get to the emotional roots of what make them realistic. This will often generate a LOT of talking.
Use the prompts as a jumping-off point, but let them talk and talk and talk stream-of-consciousness style to let the story go wherever it wants to go. Remember to be a good listener. Don’t worry if none of this makes it into your actual story. The message from your real-life interviews applies here too: It’s not about the content, it’s about paying attention to how they talk. If you happen to find some nuggets of gold in their talking that can be applied, that’s a bonus.
5. MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS TALK TO OTHERS.
How you talk to your mother is likely going to be very different than how you talk to your significant other. And both of those conversations are going to be very different than how you talk to your boss. The same is true for your characters.
Put your characters into different situations where they have to interact with different people. Put them in emotionally heated dialogues and see WHAT they say and HOW they say it. See what situations and people make them talk more. This is where you’ll often find golden nuggets of content to use later.
But also see what situations and people make them talk less. Figure out why they’re talking less. Get to the emotional root of it. If their output is censored, what is going on with them internally? Use stream-of-consciousness to pull this out.
Need some situations to put them in and get them talking? Try these:
- Your character is talking at the bar after a few drinks
- Talk to the bartender
- Talk to the other patrons as a whole group
- Intimately talk with a friend
- Your character is going to ask their boss for a promotion
- Talk to a co-worker about it
- Talk to a friend/relative/significant other about IF they should do it
- Talk to themselves in the mirror as a pep-talk
- Talk to the boss
- Your character is in a fight with their significant other
- Talk to the significant other gently
- Yell at the significant other
- Apologize to the significant other
- Internal thoughts of what they "should" or "shouldn't" say
- Your character meets a troubled person on the street/at the bus stop/at the store
- Listen to this troubled person's story
- Respond to this troubled person out loud
- React to this troubled person internally
- Give some advice
An accurate, honest, believable voice is necessary to strong fiction. Achieving it is tough. Paying attention to voices and how people naturally use language, quieting the mind, and interviewing your characters will get you started. But remember, don't imitate others' voices; use your own.