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Writing Advice

Character Voices

Today’s post plays into narration as well as character development, but these elements walk hand in hand sometimes. Whether you’re writing in first person or third, your character’s voice is going to affect the way narration is written. Some day, I’ll write posts that are strictly about narration and point of view, but for today we’re going to cover those topics broadly as a way of showing more detail about your characters.

So what is a character’s voice? It’s the way a character communicates that expresses their personality and background. You can show this in narration and in dialogue. It can also change over the course of the story if, say, a character is a child who’s growing up, or maybe they’re a person of any age who is facing extraordinary circumstances. In Flowers for Algernon (spoilers if you click), Charlie’s voice changes immensely as the plot progresses. This is a powerful book, folks, and you should definitely pick up a copy if you haven’t read it. It’s a story that will change the way you look at people.

It’s hard for me to tell you how to create a character’s voice because I think the process is going to be a little different for every writer. You just have to keep writing until you hear them. It’s especially difficult for beginners, I think, because your first characters are going to sound like you. There’s just no getting around that; the predominant voice you hear in your head (if you hear one) is your own, and since all of your writing is coming from your head, well, there you go. The most important thing is to keep trying and don’t let frustration or doubt convince you to stop. Editing covers all writing sins. Trust me. You just have to get to the end of your rough draft, and then you can go back and rewrite until you’re happy.

But of course I have a few suggestions for you. Try some of these as you write, and see if they help you develop your characters’ voices.

  • Really consider what their vocabulary might be like. Use their age, regional background, and education to figure out what they would realistically say in a conversation with someone. A five year old is not likely to talk like a teenager. Someone with a Ph.D isn’t going to sound the same as a high school dropout. A trust fund princess from NYC won’t sound like someone who grew up in Podunk, Texas.  You might need to do some research here, but it will be worth it.
  • Let your dialogue influence your exposition. If your character uses a lot of slang in conversation, that’s going to  color the way he sees the world as well. If he refers to women as “shorties” when he’s talking, he’s not likely to go back to calling them women in his head when he’s walking around by himself.
  • Watch out for stereotypes. Almost nobody falls in line with a standardized way of speaking a hundred percent of the time. People code switch. They act different when they’re trying to impress someone, or when they’re nervous or under stress. You need to be consistent most of the time, but when you break out of that, you need to give a reason for it.
  • Read, read, read. Really study the narration and exposition in your favorite books. If you’re reading a book with multiple point of view characters, try to analyze what the author did to differentiate them. Read multiple books by the same author and see if their narrators sound the same or if they sound different. I’m not saying that you should copy other writers. Just try to learn from them and apply what you learned to your own work. I’ll recommend George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series as a good example of books with multiple point of view characters. Look to Tamora Pierce for an example of an author who’s written books with narrators who stand out from one another–compare Alanna from her Song of the Lioness quartet to Beka Cooper from the Provost’s Dog trilogy.

And that’s it for today! I hope it was slightly clearer than mud. I’ll post an exercise on Friday, and then it will be June and we’ll be on to something new. How exciting! As always, if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add, please drop a comment down below.

Image credit: John Jennings, Unsplash

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