I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I didn’t have much of an understanding of character voice two years ago. I’m an English graduate, and none of my professors in college really talked about it. I think I remember learning the definition in high school and reading it briefly in a few writing tips.
In truth, I’ve probably heard the fact that “voice is one of the biggest draws for getting an agent or editor” more than I’ve actually heard tips on writing voice. Since then, I’ve gotten to the heart of what voice is. Or so I think. You’ll have to judge for yourself. Here’s what I found for anyone who might be struggling like I once was, or anyone who wants to learn more. The stuff in this post is what helped me bring that elusive voice into focus.
First, by definition, “voice” can refer to the writer’s style, the narrator’s style, or, your characters’ persona, thoughts, speech patterns, and word choice.
Sometimes when people think of character voice, they think of first-person narration, but really, all characters have a voice of their own, even if they aren’t telling the story.
To illustrate, here are three lines from Harry, Ron, and Hermione:
- “Don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you…”
- “Can I have a look at Uranus too, Lavender?”
- “I don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me.”
If you’ve read the books, I bet you can tell who said what.
Voice is made up of two things: What the character talks (or sometimes thinks) about, and how she says it. In other words:
Hermione believes in following rules and frequently tells Ron and Harry to do likewise. She’s also very logical and intelligent. In the first line above, she chooses to warn Harry, and then explains, logically, why he should heed her warning. Ron usually says those comical one-liners, and his language is usually a little coarser than the other two, so his quote is the second one. Because Harry is frequently accused of things, he often has to defend himself, “I don’t go looking for trouble.”
What Your Character Talks About
So, What does your character choose to talk about? What does he not talk about?
In Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits often talk about food. They’re Hobbits, so they eat a lot more than the other characters and therefore food is important to their culture. Because they bring up food a lot, we know that’s what they are thinking about on their journey.
They don’t casually strike up conversations about advanced battle tactics; they don’t have a war-based background. And any conversation they do have about battle tactics wouldn’t be on the same level as a warrior.
So their background, culture, interests, and experience influence their voice.
If your character is a nutritionist, she might look at her lunch and talk about complex carbs, protein, calories, and vitamins. A fashionista might notice that her best friend is wearing this season’s color. A dentist might see people’s teeth first.
Remember, what your character chooses to talk about reflects what he’s thinking about. I know that sounds obvious, but have you really considered it? If your character says something, it’s also conveying to your reader what’s on his mind at that moment.
You can work that to your advantage by having your character say something surprising in a specific situation. If I have a character break up with her boyfriend, and she’s crying, and someone tries to comfort her, and she says, “It’s not Zach so much. Now I have to go to the dance looking like a complete idiot.” Not only is the response surprising–she’s not crying over the loss of Zach, but her potential embarrassment–it also reveals character–she’s more concerned with her image than the loss of her significant other.
Having that specific line stated in that situation conveys a lot about the character and her relationship with her boyfriend. It conveys what she’s thinking about most.
Next time, in Part 2 of this, I’ll delve into how characters talk, mentioning some of the potential problems and a few minor techniques you can use for a character’s voice.