Show Tunes and Character Voice

I grew up playing piano. And there was a very long stretch of time where “practicing” meant resentfully plopping down on the bench and plunking out whatever notes I’d been assigned from my method books that week.

Thankfully, my mother was more persistent than I was stubborn, and I eventually reached a point where I could play the songs I wanted to play, rather than those I had been assigned. One of those songs was “All I Ask of You,” from Phantom of the Opera.

I learned the notes, and I could play them fast. That meant I had learned the song, right?


My fabulous, long-suffering piano teacher pointed out that the song was a duet sung by two very different characters. She challenged me to play the song so that she could tell who was singing without looking at the words on the page.

Something clicked. I realized that all those circles and lines and dots and swirls were not just blobs of ink on a page. They told a story, as much as letters in a book did. I went through that entire Phantom of the Opera book, experimenting and learning how to make the piano speak for the characters.

I was already a writing addict at that point, and I started thinking about how my newfound insight applied to my love of words. I looked at books I loved, and I looked at what I had written, and I realized:

Characters are not supposed to sound the same!

But my characters did. And I wasn’t sure how to fix it. So I took a long hard look at my favorite books–specifically, Harry Potter. There were big long segments of dialogue with absolutely no tags, sometimes between three characters, and you know what? I could tell exactly which character was talking, because they were so distinct.

How did she do that? And how could I manage that?

I decided to take the same tack I’d used with Phantom of the Opera. I took Harry Potter, the characters that were so well developed and so distinct, and I experimented with them. I tried to imitate their set voices in new situations, to get a handle on who the characters were, how they sounded different, why they sounded different.

Fanfiction gets a bad rap, but I’m here to tell you that it’s one of the most useful ways to learn the art of writing. With a good example to study and follow, a writer can pick up and practice subtleties and intricacies that eventually get translated from imitation to original stories and characters.

Writing, like anything else, takes practice and study. The difference is, our textbooks are novels, essays, poetry, picture books–whatever it is we’re seeking to write. Writers learn so much more from a well-written book from their intended genre than they could ever learn from an instruction book on the writing craft.

So go forth and study the books that stick with you. See what it is about those books that make them stand out, and then indulge in a little fanfiction. Absorb. Emulate. Then take those lessons and bring them back into your own work.

What books have taught you the most about writing? Have you done fanfiction?

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