I just finished watching Nina Conti‘s quite wonderful documentary about her life as a ventriloquist. I’ve long been in awe of the sheer talent and hours of practise ventriloquists have to put in to achieve their goal and for every Nina there must be a hundred whose attempts are not successful, but who still plug away, talking to a puppet. In essence, this documentary features Nina taking what she calls the ‘bereaved puppets’ of her mentor, Ken Campbell, on a pilgramage to Kentucky and the Vent Haven museum.
‘Bereaved puppets’. A wonderful phrase, and one that also brings to mind this incredibly sad picture, published by Warner Brothers in the wake of the death of the wonderful, wonderful Mel Blanc – an outstanding talent and one of my personal heroes.
The man. The voice. The legend.
There was something she said during the course of the programme (if you can access it on BBC iPlayer whilst it’s still here, do so – it really is a wonderful thing to watch) that resonated with me in my capacity as a writer.
In essence, Nina was talking about the ‘voices in her head’ and how the puppets bring out a dormant side of her personality. I think that’s true of me as a writer as well, except in my case the puppets are characters in my stories. Just as Nina spends a lot of time with her puppets trying to find their ‘voices’, I can’t write about a character if I can’t hear their voice. Sometimes, a quiescent character is louder than I anticipated and as a consequence, my attention goes in their direction.
Take Jeremiah, the scene-stealing swine. Dreamed up as nothing more than a passing character for The Gildar Rift, needed for nothing more than a scene to move the story on, the scratty little Navigator shouted far louder than I ever intended to. As a consequence, he caught the attention of my editor at the first draft stage. ‘More of him, please,’ was the request. So Jeremiah, smirking all the while, got to say more, do more, be more prominent than he was ever meant to be. The same is true for the character of Kormak in Valkia the Bloody. He was conceived with no purpose in mind other than to demonstrate just how far loyalty can be stretched… well, it’s not released yet, but you’ll see what happened there.
All my main characters have very distinctive ‘voices’. I also find that when I read other books, the characters take on tone and pitch; accents and inflections. If this doesn’t happen, then I consider myself completely unengaged with the protagonist. It may not completely ruin my enjoyment of a book, but it somehow becomes more… passive. I read the book in a neutral, clipped British accent; a narrator who pronounces every ‘h’, who sounds every ‘g’ and ‘t’ at the ends of his words. But when a character has a specific voice – and I don’t mean necessarily dialect (Gambit’s varying Cajun from X-Men, anybody?) – then they come alive. They step out of the page and talk to me.
Take Garviel Loken from the Horus Heresy series. In my head, he is a softly-spoken sort of character. At least, as softly-spoken as an Adeptus Astartes with bajillions of genetic modifications can be. I hear this constant note of query in his voice: as if he is questioning everything cautiously. Compare him to a character like Taryk Torgaddon, who blusters his way noisily around the Vengeful Spirit and it works perfectly. Belgarion, from David Edding’s Belgariad series whines his way around the world until he becomes a man. Then he’s much the same, only slightly deeper. Ce’nedra screeches, Polgara talks in very plummy English, Durnik is West Country to the hilt… do you see what I mean?
I think if you can’t find a character’s voice, it’s very hard to write for them. I have written a couple of Doctor Who stories since the new series kicked off (purely for my own entertainment) and whilst I found David Tennant’s Doctor Voice fairly easy to find and work with, I found it much harder to engage with Christopher Eccleston. It became a personal challenge and in the end, I think I managed it. I’m going to drop the story at the end of this post for those who might be interested. (Also, if you want to see any of the Ten stories, just let me know).
At the end of Nina’s documentary, she gives one of her puppets to the ‘Vent Haven’ museum and I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised at her choice. It had seemed to me that this was a puppet with whom she had engaged brilliantly. She also chooses to give another puppet to a young ventriloquist who impressed her. He must be about twelve or thirteen years old. “Do you want this puppet?” It’s a simple question and the sheer delight on the boy’s face is wonderful. “I would love it,” he exclaims and she hands it to him, explaining that she’s tried so hard, but she’s no good at it. She’s not talking about ventriloquism in that moment, because Nina Conti is an astonishingly competent and wonderfully talented woman. She’s talking about finding the puppet’s voice. And in the act of passing it to someone else, she mirrors the action of her own mentor.
If you can’t find a puppet’s – or a character’s – voice, the best thing to do is find another one.