Considering the writing craft is a lot about silently sitting in a cosy corner and transferring your brain onto a page, there’s a lot of terms and confusing jargon about Voice. Author voice, character voice, tiny-little-grammar-Nazi-on-your-shoulder voice. Needless to say, these elusive ‘voices’ can be, well…elusive.
How does one write unique character voice? And what does that even mean?
First of all, here’s a quick definition:
Character Voice = The unique style, tone, and personality of the Point of View (POV) character that comes out through the prose.
The best part about POVs is that each character brings a different style and feel to the storytelling. As I said—it’s their unique personality affecting the phrasing and wording of the sentences. Their indirect thoughts, as such.
Two easy steps.
1: Make a unique character!
If your character is unique and different, you’ve already set a brilliant base for strong and unique character voice.
2: Let that unique personality pour onto the pages
The personality of the character should be rich in your mind, and all you have to do is make sure you let that personality out onto the page as you write. Show the characters thoughts.
Different characters see the same setting and situation very differently. Here’s two examples that I’ve written up from the POVs of two of my characters. They’re in different worlds, but still both similar situations: going into a tavern/restaurant/fast food place to order something to eat.
I pushed my sleeves up, cracking my knuckles for extra effect. Here’s to there being a special on today. I raised an imaginary glass in toast, then pushed through the door. The smell smacked me as soon as I stepped in and I groaned.
Why did fast food places have to smell so much like hamburgers? Torture, it was. Sheer torture and there weren’t no other word for it.
“Can I help you?” The voice snapped my gaze across to the lady standing behind the counter. Her hair looked like a ball of yarn after a dog had chewed it for at least half an hour—but supposedly that was fashionable and who was I to complain? It’s not like my sense of fashion was one-upping anyone except for a hobo. I squinted at her hair for a little too long, before switching my gaze to her now-stiff smile.
“Have any specials today?” I dropped my backpack—carefully—onto the nearest chair. I had me a date with my dog, and she wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t have hamburgers.
You see, dogs are like hedgehogs sometimes. Cute, but incredibly prickly in you pat them the wrong way. Or if you don’t buy them their favourite hamburger.
The smell of the dirty press of bodies hits me the instant I walk through the door of the Maestoso tavern.
I stop just inside the doorway, scanning across the shouting sea of unfamiliarity. The bar of the tavern is packed with figures, and there are tables in rows along the walls. Almost every seat full. So many bodies pressed together. So many faces that are here today and gone tomorrow. So many lives entangled into such a pattern of boredom that they come and get drunk just to liven things up a bit.
I let my gaze flit across the faces. There’s so much anger and hurt and fear, buried beneath flushed cheeks and raised mugs.
I tuck a springy piece of hair behind my ear and ease between two men at the bar, standing on tiptoes to see. I wave my hand to catch the barmaid’s attention, but she’s already walking toward me.
Her eyes narrow as she props her elbows on the bench top, leaning down to my height. “What can I get you today?”
I swallow down the bile churning in my throat as laughter echoes again behind me. “Could I have some water, please?”
You can learn a lot about those two characters just from those tiny snippets. The first guy is careless and humorous and distracted. The girl in the second section is thoughtful, timid, and uncertain in this situation and setting. Their thoughts come out in the prose, and thus their personality and unique style affects the way things are phrased.
The same goes for 3rd person. For example, here’s the beginning of the first snippet, but rewritten into 3rd:
Sebastian pushed his sleeves up, cracking his knuckles for extra effect. With any luck, there’d be a special on and he could get a meal at half price. Good food, less cost. Win-win. He raised an imaginary glass in toast, then pushed through the door.
The smell smacked him in the face as soon as he stepped in, and he groaned. Why did fast food places have to smell so much like hamburgers? Torture, it was. Sheer torture and there weren’t no other word for it.
Despite the fact that it sounds relatively simple in theory, there are a few (at least two 😉 ) common mistakes that can very easily be made in this area.
Not actually transferring the personality into the prose
If the character’s personality is strong in your mind, it’s possible to forget that the reader can’t automatically hear the character’s thoughts without being told. I mean, you can, so why can’t they?
Sometimes you can forget to actually put those thoughts onto the page. Too much hoarding of the character’s thoughts and none of your readers will hear the character voice. They won’t hear his unique personality. They’ll just hear a boring character who isn’t anything special or different.
And if the readers don’t care about the character, there’s about 99% chance that they won’t care about the book either.
Too much character voice
Yes, there is such a thing as too much character voice. This is when there are so many remarks and comments from the narrating character that the reader can’t actually keep track of what’s actually happening in the story. I’ve read books like this before and it’s incredibly confusing. The descriptions and action all get lost between the offhand comments and disconnected thoughts of the character and the readers get lost too. 😛
There’s definitely a balance to getting enough and not too much, and it’s just a matter of a) doing the best you can, and then b) getting people to read your work—alpha readers, beta readers, etc—so they can double check that it actually makes sense.
You want to draw your reader in so they experience the scene through the eyes of the character, personality and all. Without character voice, the prose just sounds flat and pretty boring. Character voice is what grabs your reader from the first page, and what keeps them there from the word go. Literary agents and publishers also put a huge stock in character voice, because they have so many submissions to read through and if it hasn’t got good character voice they won’t (or rarely will) consider it worth their time.
Chat with me! What’s your thoughts on character voice? Do you struggle more with too much or too little?