Creating Character Voice
Hi PubCrawlers! Julie here, and today I want to talk a bit about Character Voice—that is, the pattern of thought and speech that is unique to each character. A strong and distinct voice will help bring a character to life on the page.
I want to be clear in differentiating Character Voice from Writer’s Voice, or the voice you as a writer bring to your stories. JJ and Kelly have a great podcast about Writer’s Voice here and Kat has a helpful post on the subject here. Today, though, I want to talk about how you can create honest, distinct, and engaging voices for your individual characters. This can be especially important when a book is told from two (or more) characters’ points of view, or when a sequel is written from a different character’s perspective. (I’m currently in the process of addressing this in my own writing. My debut, Ivory and Bone, was written from Kol’s point of view, but the sequel, Obsidian and Stars, is told from Mya’s point of view. If I succeed in creating an authentic voice for each of them, a reader should know which character’s point of view they are reading just by the difference in the voice on the page.)
First, I want to share some advice about what not to rely on when creating a character’s voice. Please do not to let yourself fall back on generalizations about the character’s race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or any other characteristic that leads to stereotyping. When creating a unique voice for each of your characters, you must start with the layers of unique experiences and traits from which their words and thoughts spring. There are no short cuts. A character whose words, thoughts, and language are limited to a category instead of character, will be wooden, inauthentic, and very likely offensive.
So what should you consider when creating the voice of a character? There are so many questions you could ask yourself about your characters, I could never fit them all into this post, but here are a few good ones to start with:
What do they value? What a person cares about has a big influence on what they think and talk about. What they value will also influence what kinds of words they use and the metaphors that help them interpret the world. A materialistic person may describe all of their friends by the cars they drive, for instance. Think of an acquaintance who has very different values from you, and you’ll probably notice that they speak differently than you do. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker have different values when they meet in A New Hope, and their communication styles reflect that (as well as many other differences between them!)
What do they read? Rather than focusing on your character's level of education—something that could invite stereotyping—try instead to imagine what your character likes to read. If someone reads nothing but the sports section of the paper, their language might reflect that. If your character reads travel books or cook books or business guides, it will influence the words they choose. A well-read person with little formal education might have a large vocabulary, but mispronounce words they’ve read but never heard said out loud. All these things help inform a character’s voice.
How do they perceive the world? If your characters were to get off a bus in Times Square, what would be the first things they noticed? The noise? The smells? The lights? The crowds? The chill or the heat? What attributes of the physical world make the strongest impressions on them? All these things will influence what your characters think about and talk about. Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, always takes notice of the signs of a person’s status, and this has a very strong influence on her character’s voice.
How do they want to be perceived? A character’s manner of thinking and speaking will be heavily influenced by how they want the people around them to perceive them. Even characters with similar backgrounds—Katniss and Gale from The Hunger Games, for instance—will have different levels of concern for the opinions of others. Remember the scene where Katniss and Gale speak to Madge right before the Reaping in the first book of that series? Gale gets angry when Madge remarks that she wants to look nice if her name is called, and Katniss tries to make up for Gale’s rudeness to Madge. The voices of all three characters in this scene—Katniss, Gale, and Madge—are influences by how they want to be perceived.
Are they an introvert or extrovert? Private or open? I had to include this one because it’s had a strong influence on the voice of Mya in Obsidian and Stars. Finding the right voice for Mya was extra challenging because she is a deeply private person. Since the book is written in first person, it was important that I find a way to allow Mya to talk about her thoughts and feelings while at the same time maintaining the sense that she shares herself reluctantly. A character’s sense of privacy and level of comfort in social situations will have an influence on their voice.
Other questions you could consider:
Are they intense or laid back? Are they upbeat or negative? Are they self-aware or in denial? Are they nurturing or distant?
These are just some of the things you can consider when creating the voice of each of your characters. I’m sure you can think of many more. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!