Character Voice is such a difficult thing to define in writing. It’s made up of so many elements. It’s the way a character talks and thinks, it’s what they believe and how this governs what they do, it’s what makes them unique, its what makes them stay in a reader’s mind long after they have finished the book.
We are a product of our past, our present and our hopes for the future. So too are our characters, and these things are reflected in who they are and in how they express themselves.
Voice is what makes your characters memorable, it’s the way in which they speak to and connect with your readers. It’s expressed through their internal thoughts, their dialogue and their actions and reactions.
Your character’s voice also reflects your voice as a writer because our characters are like our children, they are a reflection of who we are.
Don’t be put off if you don’t find your character’s voice straight away.
Often, it’s not till I finish writing a novel that I realise I have finally found my character’s voice, and I have to go back and rework the start to reflect all the things I have discovered during the writing process about my character, their internal and external motivations, what makes them unique and who they really are.
That’s why I recommend you don’t spend too long fiddling with the start of your novel, just write it to the end, then go back and rework the start. Fixating on the beginning and ‘trying to get it right’ can prevent you from moving forward with your story.
Below is an example to show you what I mean about being able to strengthen your character’s voice once you know more about them. These excerpts are from the start of my YA suspense novel, The Chat Room.
EARLY VERSION – (About 2 years ago)
When I walk out the front door for good, Dad will have to trust that I’ll be okay. He’ll have to trust that he taught me to be smart about stuff – that I value my life too much to throw it away.
He’s a policeman who’s ‘seen bad things’, but like I keep telling him, “that doesn’t mean they’re going to happen in our family”. If Mum wasn’t on my side, I’d never be allowed to go anywhere. I definitely wouldn’t be having my seventeenth birthday party at our house tonight – with no parental supervision.
I’m still amazed it’s happening. Mind you, it took about twenty “you can trust me” promises before Dad finely caved – and that was only thanks to Peter Chew’s self help book, “Build your teen’s confidence through trust”.
Trust is my promise to keep my little sister alcohol free, drug free and safe at my party. Trust is what stands between me, and being grounded for life. Trust is my friend and my nemesis. If anything goes wrong here, I’m screwed.
I won’t let that happen. I’m not stupid. I haven’t made this party public. Just invited close mates and a couple of online friends. That’s how I want it – laid back – no big deal. Just a bunch of guys and girls, hanging out and having fun.
I’m so determined to keep it casual that I’m still sitting at my computer two hours before people are due to arrive. My bedroom door bursts open and Mum walks in, wearing her “in a hurry frown”.
Five years ago nobody thought I’d live to celebrate my seventeenth birthday. But here I am, eating chocolate cake, enough to overdose on, and unless you know where to look, you can’t even see my scars.
Even more of a miracle, I’ve convinced my over protective policeman dad to let me have a seventeenth birthday party – just a small one – no mess – no loud music – and no morons. My fifty handpicked guests have been chosen for their potential to have fiasco free fun. I had a bit of extra leverage this year. It’s my parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary today, so Mum demanded a celebration of her own and talked Dad into taking her out for dinner.
I shove the last chocolate crumbs into my mouth, and place my empty plate next to the silver tray with the knife that Mum used to cut the giant cake slabs.
Lia’s plate is empty too. “I’ll load them into the dishwasher.” She leans across to take my plate and accidentally bumps the knife and it clatters off the silver tray, straight onto my foot that I left bare to allow the nail polish on my toes to dry.
“Shit!” I look down to see blood seeping out.
Lia’s eyes go wide. “I’m so sorry. I’m such a klutz.”
Dad bends down to look. “It’s okay. It’s just a small cut.”
Mum comes back with disinfectant and a pressure bandage.
Lia crouches down for a closer look. “Oh Mindy, I can’t believe I did that. I’ve ruined your birthday.”
I put my arm around her. “No, you haven’t. You’ll hardly even see the bandage once I put my shoes on.”
“But it must hurt.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve had worse.”
Everyone goes quiet. I guess like me, they’re remembering back to the accident, to the time I almost lost my life.
Although the first version gives the reader an idea of who Mindy is now, it doesn’t really give you any idea of her deeper motivations, of what she might have gone through to get to this point, of what has made her the way she is today.
There’s also a lot of ‘telling’ in the first version which is more about me discovering who the character is for myself rather than revealing her to the reader.
In the second version, the reader learns about Mindy’s accident which has a huge influence on who Mindy is now and on what she will do. It adds another layer to her character and gives the reader more reason to connect with her – to care about what will happen to her in this story.
Seeing Mindy’s interaction with her family also gives us a stronger sense of who she is.
Don’t be afraid to try new things with your characters to find out who they really are.
- Interview your character and don’t be afraid to ask them curly questions
- Get them to write letters to you
- Get them to write letters to other characters in the story
- Explore their past
- Explore their relationships with other characters
- Ask them to tell you the most memorable thing about their character
- Make a character collage
- Put your character in difficult situations and ask them what they would do
If you have any other tips on how you find your character’s voice, please feel free to share them in the comments section of this post.