Every writer strives to create characters that are memorable and multi-faceted, someone with whom their readers can relate to, root for, or root against. This is a tall order, especially when every character needs to also have a unique voice in the story. Very often—and this is especially true with newer writers—many of the characters sound too similar to each other, as though the writer were performing an amateur puppet show and only barely altering their own voice to suit each character. This can be a problem because readers don’t want to see behind the scenes of the story; they don’t want the curtain pulled back on the Wizard; they don’t want to see how the sausage is made. They just want to be immersed in the world that the author is presenting to them.
The puppet show metaphor is a helpful way to think about the relationship between writers and their characters and is a good reminder to make sure your characters sound and feel authentic. After all, every storyteller is essentially a puppeteer of sorts. After all, your characters don’t exist outside your mind, you control everything they do, and it is your voice that is speaking through them. So how do we avoid the problem of the low-budget puppet show in our storytelling? The answer may lie with perhaps the most famous puppet of all: Kermit the Frog.
Jim Henson was a master storyteller and one of my personal heroes. Like millions of other kids, I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. For many of us, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Kermit the Frog weren’t just brightly colored and fuzzy characters on the screen, they were some of our earliest teachers and friends. And even though we probably knew the Muppets weren’t the same as the “real” humans on those shows, we didn’t mind. We never “saw” the puppeteers; we only saw the characters we loved.
Jim Henson never made any pretensions about his puppetry skills, however. He never claimed to be a ventriloquist, and he never tried to hide the fact that his lips moved when he operated Kermit the Frog. Henson and Kermit made several appearances on The Tonight Show, and both Johnny Carson and the entire viewing audience could see Jim’s hand inside Kermit and see Jim’s lips moving as Kermit spoke. But here’s the thing: Johnny Carson didn’t look at Jim—he looked at Kermit. He spoke to Kermit as though he were real. And that’s because Kermit the Frog was so fully realized as a character by Jim Henson that he took on his own identity and had his own totally unique voice. We may see Jim Henson, but we believe in Kermit the Frog. The same is true of other Muppet characters that Henson voiced, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf, and Guy Smiley.
The same could be said of the Sesame Street Muppets. Each Muppet character is so well crafted and has so much depth that they feel real and unique. For instance, Big Bird is perpetually six years old, and he sees the world through a child’s perspective. He is happy, innocent, more than a bit naïve about the world, and is one of the show’s primary connections to the child watching at home. Big Bird is operated and voiced by Caroll Spinney, who also voices Oscar the Grouch, a character so far down the spectrum from Big Bird that the two could never be mistaken for each other. They are two vastly different characters with completely different voices, but they come from the same person.
Or consider Bert and Ernie, voiced by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, respectively. Bert likes gray pigeons and oatmeal, while Ernie loves his rubber duckie and playing the drums. Bert and Ernie’s dynamic and comedic timing rivals that of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, but it was really the dynamic of Frank and Jim behind the scenes that made us laugh, just as it did when they would perform as Miss Piggy and Kermit (or as Grover and Kermit, or as Fozzie Bear and Kermit).
Though wildly different individually, the Sesame Street Muppets are all telling the same “story” to the child with the same voice: It’s okay to be a kid. Growing up isn’t easy, so here are a few things that will help you along the way. Also, let’s sing about the alphabet and count to twenty in Spanish.
The relationship between Jim Henson and the Muppets is an excellent ideal for writers to strive for. Kermit the Frog was, in a very real sense, an extension of Jim, and Kermit could often say and do things that Jim perhaps felt he couldn’t with his regular voice. Yet Jim Henson used his Muppets’ voices to weave wildly imaginative tales that have stuck with us a generation later. Through his characters’ unique voices, it was really Jim’s voice that told the rest of us lovers and dreamers that the world was a beautiful place, and that maybe the Rainbow Connection wasn’t that far off.
As writers, we need to get inside our characters heads and hearts in the same way they are already in ours. We need to figure out what makes them tick, what they love and hate, and what makes them unique. That will only come as we spend time with our characters. We must talk with our characters, and perhaps even more importantly, we must listen to them. Then we can let their voices ring out clearly and in harmony with our own. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts that a writer can do, and the truth is, we’re all going to struggle with it for a long time. But that’s okay. And it’s even okay if your readers sense your voice coming through your characters. So long as your characters are as honest and open as Kermit, your readers will believe them. And they will believe you.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.