Imitating the Masters: How to Use Setting to Test Your Character's Voice

Practicing this type of imitation is useful because displacing characters and putting them in new settings and situations helps clarify how character voice affects a story as much as (or more than) plot.
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Writing imitations of work that you admire is a great way to stretch your writing skills and improve your mastery of writing techniques. (For more on the benefits of writing imitations, read Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors.)

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The following is an imitation of True Grit by Charles Portis. In the novel, which takes place in the 1870s, Mattie Ross recounts how she pursued her father's killer from her home in Arkansas into Indian Territory to seek revenge against him when she was only fourteen.

Throughout the novel, Mattie is primarily concerned with the fairness of transactions—including payback for her father's murder, the amount she spends on different necessities for the adventure, and more. Though it's a serious story overall, filled with death and injury, Mattie's voice and particular attitude towards the events she recounts characterize the novel and informs the way readers see the events.

This imitation places Mattie in a situation that is less about life and death, but still very serious and important to a young adult: beginning college. The main focus of this imitation is emulating Mattie's voice, which means a focus on transactions even in her approach to a modern situation—and because Mattie's voice is strong enough, it carries through and transports her to this new setting.

While you may not want the voice of your perspective character to draw as much attention to itself as Mattie's does, you also want your characters to stand out as unique individuals. Practicing this type of imitation is useful because displacing characters and putting them in new settings and situations helps clarify how character voice affects a story as much as (or more than) plot.

Disclaimer: I am not Charles Portis; anyone familiar with the style of Charles Portis likely can find multiple discrepancies between our styles, even though this piece represents an attempt to mirror his. In addition, this was written as a practice exercise, and is therefore a bit rough.

Imitation of True Grit by Charles Portis

I was eighteen years of age when all my friends from high school and before dispersed to their different colleges and I headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to begin my education at the University of Cincinnati.

The University of Cincinnati did not look to take up much space on the map but there are two "branch" campuses in addition to the main campus. The website lists that there are one hundred forty-one university or university-affiliated buildings, but as I am standing on the campus and looking around me I think that they are "stretching" the number of actual structures by listing separate offices and departments in the same structure as separate buildings. The buildings are a sort of "hodgepodge" anyway because the buildings on one side of campus are of a modern style and on the other side they look old-fashioned, but the buildings in the middle change from one to the other halfway through as if the planners changed their mind after already starting construction. When I first saw them my thought was: Somebody has made this campus into an architectural Frankenstein!

I saw a group of people standing around waiting to talk to a girl in a university shirt standing near the corner of a building labeled TANGEMAN UNIVERSITY CENTER so I waited until it was my turn. She handed me a folder and said, “Welcome to the University of Cincinnati. Everything you need to know is in that folder but you’re welcome to ask me or anyone else wearing this shirt any questions.” My first order of business according to a green paper in the folder was to get my picture taken for my university ID.

The Badge & Key Office was in Edwards 4 Center, so that is where I went. It was too cool inside the building. The desk worker was a short woman with a thick cardigan and a deep down-turned mouth. I've read that using air conditioning to make people cold in the summertime is a sign of power and prestige and if so the Badge & Key Office has a lot of power, but for my part I think that power is being ill-used when even the workers look miserable.

I walked up to the desk worker when it was my turn. Said she, "What do you need?"

Said I, "I'm here to have my picture taken and get my ID."

Said she, "Fill out this form. When you are done you can get your ID."

I sat down and filled out the form for ten minutes. There was nothing hard about it, only I had to look up my university "M" number online and I could not find it on BlackBoard right away. I am not a fan of the way my age group is always using their phones and I am not "addicted" to using my phone but I admit that it is a great modern convenience to look up such information wherever we want.

The desk woman said, “Sit in this chair. You can smile if you want." She pointed to a different chair, one placed in front of a dark curtain that helps to keep background “noise” out of the picture. I sat down. The flash went off on the camera before I was fully in a seated position and I blinked. I said, “Re-take that picture and warn me next time when you’re about to hit the button. I wasn’t ready. I blinked.”

The woman said, “Only one picture is allowed for each student. I will now create your ID.”

“No,” said I, “you will re-take my picture. My name is Mattie Ross and I have paid good money to be a student here. I have paid five thousand and five hundred dollars to be here, and as I recollect that includes a general fee and a campus life fee. I do not want any free special treatment but I am betting that one of those fees covers this ID that I am required to get from the Badge & Key Office, and I expect to get what I have paid for.”
“Only one picture is allowed for each student,” said she.

“I will not leave this seat until I have had my picture re-taken.”

“You will make me call campus security.”

“I will make you do no such thing,” I said. “What you do is your own decision, and you can make the decision to call campus security or to re-take my picture. It will be more of a “hassle” if you decide to call security, as I am a paying student and I am causing no harm to anyone.”

Said she, “I do not get paid enough to deal with these students.” I do not think I was meant to hear this statement.

“You will re-take my picture.”

The woman turned to her computer and deleted the former picture. She turned back to me and raised the camera. “Ready? Smile.” I did not smile as I was told but I also did not blink.

The woman went back to the computer and pressed a few buttons. A small card came through an opening in the machine next to her and she handed it to me. The card had my picture and name. My UC “M” number was listed at the top to make it easier to reference in the future.

I went back across campus to find the buildings where I would attend my classes. After that I went back to TANGEMAN UNIVERSITY CENTER and bought a coffee for one dollar and twenty-nine cents. I also bought a chicken sandwich with lettuce. I do not remember how much it cost.

Have you read True Grit? What characteristics do you see as prominent aspects of the voice of Mattie Ross? Do your characters still feel like themselves when you place them in new situations and give them different knowledge?

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