As an author, I love a strong voice in a character. I went through an ‘I heart Shakespeare’ period in college, and a lot of what I love about voice came from the old and mysterious bard.

In the spirit of sharing best practices, here are some tips and tricks on voice that I learned from Bill:

1. Rhythm
Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, which seems like an amazing feat until you consider that he didn’t even have cable, so what else was there to do? Still, he dropped the hidden rhythm when he was writing lower class folks. Someone with less education wouldn’t have that subtle, sweet beat to their voice. Clever move, dude.

At least he didn’t go for a comb over.

Here’s a great quote from Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain to show this point in action. I love how Twain breaks Tom’s up into short phrases using commas. You get a feel for the characters lyrical, almost sing-song voice.

“Five years ago you drove me away from your father’s kitchen one night, when I come to ask for something to eat, and you said I warn’t there for any good; and when I swore I’d get even with you if it took a hundred years, your father had me jailed for a vagrant. Did you think I’d forget? The Injun blood ain’t in me for nothing. And now I’ve got you, and you got to settle, you know!” 

2. Vocabulary

Shakespeare made up phrases all the time. Catch a cold? That was him. Knock, knock? Also thanks to the bard. Getting into a character’s head means coming face-to-face with the fact that language is limited. To really capture how someone thinks, you often have to make up words or phrases. As a result, I love when a character has their own mini-vocabulary based on their history or lifestyle. Sure, you can pick out a cowboy in less than 50 words, but how about someone from a sorority versus a soccer team? Or both? So many things in our backstory affect our language in unexpected ways, which is fascinating stuff, IMHO.

The Globe Theater, where Shakespeare did his word-thing.

To see this idea in action, nothing beats A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess:

“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”

3. Mood & Motivation

Who was more of a depressive loser than Hamlet? Hard to think of anyone, really. I mean, dude, your dead dad tells you to avenge him and you have to confirm it with a fake play? Most of us would pee our pants and then go do whatever our ghostly relative ordered. Hamlet’s sad state permeates his language. Example: “To be or not to be? That is the question.” No, the question is how soon are you going to do what your dead dad asked you to, asshole? But when we’re depressed, it affects everything, and that’s the power of voice.

What should I do? Oh, wait. There’s my dead dad to tell me. Still unclear.

Okay, to show this point, I’ll use one of my favorite passages from Ulysses by James Joyce. Hard to miss the emotion behind this one:

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” 

So, there you have it. Three lessons on voice from the dead bard himself. Now, I’ll close with my two cents on one of the classic Shakespeare questions of all time: was this guy really a royal masquerading as a nobody in his spare time?

Ah, no.

I think Shakespeare was someone obsessed with royalty, sure, but the dude worked his ass off. That’s not really the classic profile for royalty of this period. So, I vote with the group that says Shakespeare’s father was on the fringes of court and Billy Boy picked up a lot of stuff along the way. With any luck, this article helped you pick up a thing or two as well 🙂

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