E. Mark Windle 29 March 2023.
In the metaphorical sense, writers are obsessed with finding voice. Whether it’s their own for a self-penned memoir, an imaginary character in fiction writing, or for brand representation in commercial copy, the goal is to tell a story that is believable, relatable, representative of the subject and always deserving of the reader’s attention.
In ghostwritten biographies, conveying a voice that authentically represents the client is nothing short of vital. That first person narrative has to go beyond literal displays of inflection, dialect and pronunciation, even though some of that may well reach the page. Ultimately what we are referring to is capturing personality. Nailing a succinct definition is tough: the American Psychological Association describes personality as “the enduring characteristics and behaviour that comprise a person’s unique adjustment to life, including interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns.” In part, it’s derived from values instilled in us as children, through learned behaviour, life events and societal expectations.
Some character traits that make up personality (particularly opinion, beliefs and values), are not as static as one might assume. One of my interviewees, a therapist who has experienced a life full of challenging events, astutely observed that her resilience came about through a continuous semi-conscious activity of reflection on experiences, and internalisation of lessons learned. Examples of this kind of re-evaluation are obvious in more mature years (consider religious curiosity, or mortality-related beliefs – is this it? Is there an afterlife?), although it happens throughout the entire life cycle.
So, accepting that character traits can be fluid, how does the ghostwriter capture their client’s personality? Establishing rapport at the beginning of the interview process is clearly a top priority. Without it there is no transparency. The subject should feel safe, and be at ease with exposing thoughts, emotions, or dilemmas that are mentally battled with daily. A sound client-writer match is critical, as is the introductory session, where care can be taken to explain why the both parties are a good fit, to answer queries or concerns, and provide reassurances of discretion. A firm relationship of trust and openness is required in order to find that window to the soul.
Getting a feel for voice and personality in the interview situation itself also demands close attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. Speech is a good starting point. It’s a very tangible point of reference after all. Dialect, accent, habitual phrases, whispering delivery or authoritative vocal projection provide instant identity, as does the dialogue in respect of expressed social beliefs and values, or political tone. Some nuances can be easily transposed to text, but beware of falling into the trap of over-writing mannerisms or assuming stereotype. The knack is to present the uniqueness of the subject, not to pigeonhole them.
Cocktail hour stories, as one of my US editors calls them, are those anecdotes which will be very familiar to immediate family, friends and acquaintances. These yarns get an airing at every social gathering, especially where there’s a new audience to be had. The writer-client interview is no exception. The reason behind their repetition, particularly when the storyteller is a central part of the tale, often lies in some kind of mental connect. Maybe a need to amplify self-perceived attributes of humour, sarcasm, vulnerability or strength. All “voice” then, and at least some of these cocktail hour stories are worthy of going in the writer’s pot.
Physical distance and logistics might be a barrier, but there’s really no substitute for in-person interviewing. The storyteller’s own surroundings can be almost as informative of character as dialogue. Zoom sessions offer convenience and accessibility, but have limitations – theatrical room set-ups and sitting in a broom cupboard for the sake of a decent Wi-Fi connection are the kind of things that mask insight. Conducting interviews in the physical rather than virtual environment provides an opportunity to take note of sights, smells and sensations that contribute to the bigger picture. Seemingly incidental objects – furniture, paintings, that crucifix on the wall, chaotic or peaceful ambience, and degrees of domestic disarray – may be invaluable in steering the inquiry and informing character. I discovered that during a series of sessions one freezing cold winter, holed up in a work yard office Portakabin with my family business-owning storyteller. Just being present in that setting imparted an immediate sense of place and person, as did being surrounded by the dozens of treasured photographs, newspaper clippings and accolades that lined the walls of this tiny space. These were all effects reflecting family origin stories, the contribution made by ancestors to get the client to where he is now, and the company’s challenges and achievements.
Biographical writing involves a range of skills: research, interpersonal communication, peripheral observation, and of course creative process. The goal of the ghostwriter’s craft is to articulate a life story that’s not only accurate and immersive, but conveys the storyteller’s spirit, while the ghost disappears into the ether. Find the client’s voice, and you’re half way there.
(Copyright 2023). E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact him via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/