Devourer of Words 59: Finding the Voice

Toucan reading a comic

Unless you’re a novelist, who gets to write purely for yourself, it is likely that at some point you will have to write for “someone.” And that someone could be many things.

If you’re writing comics, that could mean writing a character that has a specific voice. Peter Parker always needs to sound like Peter Parker. Of course, there’s a way to put your own mustard on it—especially if you’re going to be writing Spidey for a good long while and have the chance to subtly push the character into a place that feels more like “you.” But, as I’m sure your editors will tell you, if you want to fundamentally change who Peter Parker is … no. Go create your own character.

If you’re in TV—unless you’re running your own show—you will have to learn to mimic the showrunner’s voice. How does she turn a phrase? How does he like to end scenes, with resolution or on a cliffhanger? How funny do they like to be? Because, one way or another, the script will be the way they want it—the value you add is by making it as easy as possible to get it there. You’re going to get rewritten; how long that rewriting takes will determine whether or not they hire you back for the next season.

If you’re in movies, it’s possible that you’ll write and sell something original. But that’s harder than ever these days, given Hollywood’s unslakable hunger for IP to adapt. Odds are, you’ll end up writing an adaptation or a sequel or a reboot or a preboot of something that already exists. And the producers will have in their heads what that needs to look like and sound like. (You can’t write a Transformers movie without giant robots punching each other and then turning into a Vespa or whatever.) And even if you do sell that original screenplay, it won’t get made until a director signs on—and that director will have his or her own ideas that you need to get on board with or get replaced.

So how do you succeed in pretending to be someone else? There are really only two silver bullets:

1. Read. Or watch.

If you get lucky enough to get hired to write Batman, you better read or have read a whole boatload of Batman. Know what makes that character tick. Understand the different incarnations. Get a sense of where the outer limits are, then find a place within that territory you can feel comfortable working in. If you get hired on the writing staff of Stranger Things, you’d better watch all of Stranger Things—and all of the things Stranger Things was inspired by. Become fluent in the language of the property. Know what you don’t know, then rectify that with study.

2. Abandon your ego.

You are either working in service of a person or a character. It isn’t about you. It’s about doing right by them. You might come up with a new way to skin a particular cat. “What if, on this episode of 24, Jack Bauer was stuck in a McDonald’s drive-thru for 45 minutes, then had to go to the bathroom?” Would that be kinda fun to watch? Maybe? Is that 24? No. Your brilliance will be rewarded—so long as it’s the brilliance your bosses are asking for. Do your best to make the product with your name on it as good as you can. But at some point, it won’t be exactly what you set out to write. That’s the process. The thing to remember is … that’s what the money’s for.

Set yourself up for success and know when to let go.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan and will return in January.

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