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The Order of Oddfish


Secrets of Story Episode 34: How Do You Build A Character’s Voice?

November 23, 2021

It’s another episode of the Secrets of Story podcast, hosted by me and Matt Bird. This time Matt and I discuss an insight of his that I agree with, so we fight less than usual!

Every character should have a distinct voice, such that even if you saw their line written out without attribution, you would know that they and only they would say it. In this episode, Matt says it’s helpful to build a character’s voice through their Metaphor Family (e.g., on Parks and Recreation, everything Leslie Knope says comes from the metaphors of “sunny corny can-do political zealot,” Ron Swanson’s way come from libertarianism, woodworking, barbecue, etc.), Default Personality Trait (by default Eeyore is usually gloomy, Tigger is a spaz, etc.), and Default Argument Tactic (on Community, Jeff Winger tries to trap you in a lawyerly manner, Shirley passively-aggressively guilt trips you, etc.).

It’s worth clicking through those three links and reading what Matt has to say on these topics—I think he’s on to something! And in this episode I add my own twists and modifications to this theory, pointing out that for many characters, these metaphors, traits, and tactics often change based on whom the character is speaking to—that is, a character isn’t just some immutable essence who acts the same with everyone, but they behave relationally. (After all, Luke doesn’t act the same to Ben Kenobi as he does to Uncle Owen!)

Listen to the episode here:

During the episode, Matt mentions a facial expression generator chart from Scott McCloud’s Making Comics—and, on reflection, he misrepresents how I feel about it. I totally see how Scott McCloud’s chart (reproduced below) would be very useful for visual artists who want to learn how to portray emotion in a human face. For instance, I’m terrible at drawing, so I would find this chart very useful! The thing I was arguing against was the idea of equivalent chartification of plot and character when you’re writing a story . . . I don’t think those are as amenable to the chart treatment. Anyway, the charts are below!

I’m a Scott McCloud fan, actually, and as my daughters are both eager and active graphic-novelists-in-training, I’ll be buying them Scott McCloud’s Making Comics for Christmas.