About this Course
Who Will Benefit from “Hearing Voices”?
- Wish your characters in your fiction, nonfiction, or performance writing sounded more realistic?
- Need to make characters from similar backgrounds sound distinct?
- Wonder how to capture the voice of an interview subject and make them sound true-to-life on the page?
- Want to write characters who are different from you—in age, culture, or place?
“Hearing Voices” will help writers of any kind of character-based work (fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, performance art) depict character voices that are believable, authentic, and distinct. In this 5-week online course, you’ll learn how to listen like a linguist, observing the way voices reveal the identity of the speaker and convey much more than simple words. Together, we’ll study the work of masters of these techniques. Then, you’ll put this new knowledge into practice in your own writing, with expert feedback from the instructor. In addition to learning new skills in the creation of distinct character voices, you’ll practice revising existing work and consider the ethics of depicting the voices of characters from language groups different from your own.
“Hearing Voices” is taught by 2016 Wisconsin Book of the Year author, Jennifer Morales. Her collection of interconnected short stories, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (UW Press), was lauded by critics for its powerful representation of a range of the city's voices.
I’ll post a main lesson and a set of related activities on Tuesday of each week (for 5 weeks), and you are welcome to complete them at your own pace. Lessons will be in the form of videos, readings, and handouts, and in response you’ll do writing exercises, revision exercises, and field observations and interviews. There will be constant opportunities to interact with me and with fellow students via the online discussion pages, and I will give you a couple opportunities for private consultation/comments on your homework. Of course, you can also email me whenever you need to.
Week by Week
WEEK 1: Explore
In this lesson, we’ll get to know each other and the questions we have about creating distinct and realistic character voices. You’ll begin to practice listening like a linguist “in the field” and even “eavesdrop” on your own characters. You’ll write your “language-ography”—the story of how you came to talk the way you do, and use it to reflect on the origins of your characters’ language.
WEEK 2: The Sound and the Blurry
This week, we will do some wonky-but-fun exploration of the ways that linguists break down the sound of the spoken voice and the diverse tools speakers use to communicate meaning. Then we’ll take a look at the work of a master of voice on the page, William Faulkner, and play around with some of his techniques.
WEEK 3: Tweedledee and Tweedledum Get a Makeover
This week we’ll read other exemplars of character voice and practice our skills, including giving Tweedledee and Tweedledum voice makeovers, conducting an “emotional interview” to gather voice data, and diving into some of the finer points of representing voices on the page.
WEEK 4: Creating Distinct Character Voices--and Revising the Ones You’ve Written
Using what you’ve learned in this course, you will practice creating a variety of distinct character voices in response to prompts. Then you’ll have an opportunity to refine and enhance some voices you’ve already written, with individual feedback from the instructor.
WEEK 5: The Ethics of Character Voice
We will delve into the ethical issues around the portrayal of character voices, including “Whose voices do we have the skill and the authority to write?” And, “How do we know when we’ve done it well?” We’ll explore the different roles that characters play in your text and the responsibilities that each role carries, then wrap up with a Q&A period to address your questions about the ethics of character voice.
Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist whose work wrestles with questions of gender, identity, complicity, and harm. Meet Me Halfway, her collection of short stories about race relations in Milwaukee (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), was selected by the Wisconsin Center for the Book as 2016 Book of the Year, among other honors. Booklist called Meet Me Halfway “a candid and powerful book,” and Chicago Book Review deemed it “truly masterful” and told with a “thorough fearlessness.” She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011.
Language and linguistics are lifelong passions. Jennifer received her BA in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991, studying Spanish, Chinese, and French, as well as linguistics and anthropology. In addition to that intensive language study, she has taken coursework in German and done independent study of Russian, Quechua, and Italian.
Jennifer comes to teaching and writing after a long history of work in the nonprofit, political, and publishing worlds. She represented students and parents on Milwaukee’s school board from 2001 to 2009, the first Latinx person to be elected to that office. She has served on the editorial, research, and grantwriting staff of organizations such as 9to5 National Association of Working Women, Rethinking Schools, Family Values @ Work, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education. She also has been a doula, a Sunday School teacher, a bookstore owner, and a mom.
“Morales fully inhabits the astonishingly diverse voices of her characters, allowing us to connect with them and their linked stories as they struggle to connect with each other in an ever-shifting cultural landscape.”
—Jenn Crowell, author of Necessary Madness and Etched on Me
“Jennifer Morales does nothing halfway—she throws herself full-force into the heart of Milwaukee, into the lives of her characters, and demands that the reader meet them with just as much empathy and respect. A stunning, stirring collection, one that will inspire dialogue and maybe even change.”
—Gayle Brandeis, author of The Book of Dead Birds, winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement
“Morales convincingly lets us see through the eyes of a young black boy, a racist white woman, a narrow-minded substitute teacher, a lesbian woman, a left-wing housewife, and many more real lives. There are surprises here, and real people to remember.”
—Martha Bergland, author of A Farm Under a Lake