A character’s voice is a distinctive and important part of both character development and overall development of your story. Each character voice in your novel and perhaps even some of the minor ones should have a distinctive voice that sets that character apart from others.
What is character voice?
Have you ever had a friend or relative you were so close to that you could always imagine what they might say in certain circumstances even if they weren’t with you at the time? There might also be certain things you can’t imagine that person ever saying. If so, you had a strong sense of that person’s voice.
If you think about your favourite fictional characters from books, movies and television, you may find that you get that same strong sense about what they would say in any given situation. At some point, you have probably also encountered a book in which all of the characters sounded the same. You may not have even realised it; instead, you may simply have failed to engage with those characters, and as a result, the book probably didn’t work for you either.
Character voice can make or break a book, and it encompasses a number of different elements. It is about the words the character chooses and the character’s accent or dialect, but it is also about who the character is. Is the character cocky, depressed, bossy, optimistic or thoughtful? The main qualities of the character will influence the voice. Even the way that a character feels in a given situation will have an impact on voice. For example, the character may have a verbal tic when she is anxious or afraid.
Character voice is not just the words that emerge from the character’s mouth. It is the point of view from which the character views the world.
If you have the most gripping plot imaginable happening to characters no one cares about, your readers will still be able to set your book down. Character development is crucial to your book’s success, and character voice is one important aspect of character development.
Thinking about dialogue
Since character voice is a combination of factors including dialogue, one aspect of working on character voice is making sure that you write effective dialogue. Even when you are not writing dialogue, if you are writing a passage in your character’s voice, that is very similar to writing dialogue. In those passages, you will be presenting the world to the reader through the character’s observations and possibly using the type of language that character would use. Here are some pointers for developing your skills in writing dialogue as well as things to avoid.
- One of the best ways to improve your dialogue is by listening to the way that people talk. Go out in public and ride buses, sit in coffee shops and eavesdrop. Write down bits of conversation. It doesn’t matter if your own book is set in another place or time; just getting a sense of the rhythm of people’s speech, the way they talk (and what it reveals about them), will be helpful. Notice what they talk about as well, and think about what that tells you about them too.
- Be careful about dialect. Writing dialogue is creating an approximation of the way people speak that works on the printed page. It is not about slavishly reproducing exact speech because we experience speech differently on the page than we do when we hear it. If your character hails from an area with a distinctive dialect, it is best to choose a few vocabulary words or one or two patterns of speech to reproduce. Although a few writers have managed to use dialects successfully, this is very difficult to accomplish.
- Keeping the above in mind, you should be careful about patterns of speech in general. A little goes a long way in dialogue, so one or two “likes” or “uhs” are sufficient to show hesitation for example.
- Examine the mechanics of sentence structure. A character might speak in short, clipped phrases or in long, flowery sentences. You might experiment with punctuation; maybe once character’s speech trails off a lot while another always seems to be exclaiming about something and a third has many dashes or semicolons in her speech.
Separating character voice and author voice
A broad discussion of your voice as a writer is beyond the scope of this blog post, but keep in mind that using the characters’ voices and using your own voice as a writer are somewhat different. Your voice as a writer is likely something that develops over time, and it reflects your own ideas, attitudes and preoccupations.
Depending on the point of view, you may shift between a character’s voice and your author’s voice. How much of your character’s voice is expressed through dialogue and how much through passages in the book that are not dialogue will depend on the novel’s point of view. If the book is written in first person, every word of that narration will be in the character’s voice. A third-person limited narrator may remain in the voice of the point-of-view characters though this may sometimes be somewhat less overt than first-person narration. Finally, the omniscient narrator will use the authorial voice some or all of the time.
The extent to which the character’s voice is employed outside of dialogue is also related to narrative distance. You may wish to use a close narrative voice for third person limited in which most of the scene uses the patterns of language that would be typical for the character, or you may decide to use a more distant narrative voice in which the language is closer to your authorial voice.
One potential pitfall to watch out for is ensuring that the voice you have chosen for your character is a plausible one and is not too close to the author’s own voice. Some poetic licence may be permitted, but ultimately, if you are narrating from the voice of a ten-year-old boy with vocabulary and observations that would be more in line with an adult’s voice, it is going to jar at least some readers.
How to develop the voices of your characters
Sometimes writers will talk about characters who “take over” a book and either make it much easier for the author to write or steer the story in an unexpected direction. What writers usually mean when they say this is that one or more characters had a strong voice.
In order to understand your character’s voice and develop it, you need to know your character. Your understanding of your character along with your character’s voice may develop as you are writing, or it may be something that you figure out ahead of time.
If your characters’ voices are not emerging naturally as you write or you are struggling during the planning phases, there are a number of things you can do to draw those voices out.
- Try some exercises with the character outside of the novel itself. For example, have your character write a letter, a journal entry or a series of social media posts.
- You might give your character a particular quirk of speech or a catchphrase. As discussed above, this sort of approach needs to be done in moderation. A little goes a long way on the printed page.
- Think about your character’s background including where your character is from, what kind of an education your character has, and your character’s age and gender. These things all affect how we express ourselves. Sometimes, they may also be used to good effect when they contrast with our expectations. For example, if a person in their 50s uses a lot of youthful slang, what does that tell us? Characters may also contrast with one another. A character with a plain-speaking, down-to-earth voice might talk to a character whose use of unnecessary foreign phrases or unfamiliar words indicates a pretentious voice.
- If you are still struggling, you might find it helpful to try actually speaking out loud like your character. Think about the character’s mannerisms and work on getting into the mindset of the character in the way you might if you were an actor. This may help you relax into the voice of your character on the printed page.
Character voice in fiction is intimately related to point-of-view and to character development. It is important to get the character voice right; if the characters’ voices are underdeveloped, the reader may fail to engage with the characters. If the characters’ voices are wrong for the characters, it will be more difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief and the book will seem less plausible. Understanding the character’s worldview and writing strong dialogue are key to effectively conveying that voice to readers. Writers must also keep in mind that when they are in a character’s head in first person or third-person limited, they are also in that character’s voice.
Who are some fictional characters with strong voices, and what strikes you as most distinctive about their voices?