How to Write a Character's Voice-- Attempting to Define the Undefinable

Oct 27, 2011

Alrighty, folks, I seem to be back from the world of the internet-less. To celebrate, I'm doing a post I've been putting off for a while, 'cause it's a tough one.

It's one of those undefinable, hard-to-give-five-easy-steps sort of concepts in writing: voice. Not author voice, but character voice. You know, that thing that everybody says they want in a book but no one can say exactly what it is. I'm going to attempt to define the undefinable today, and attempt to give a few tips.

To me, voice is the character's worldview as expressed through their language

Yeah. And what exactly does THAT mean?

Everyone has a unique take on the world. Our experiences and inborn traits shape our perception of everything around us. Voice is how a character expresses that unique view. It can come out in the tiny things like word choice and sentence structure. But voice is about more than words and tone.

Yes, those are important parts of it, and sometimes I do a full draft just tweaking those things for my character's voice. But equally important is your character's thought process. When something happens, how does your character process it? What do they think about it? What do they connect it to-- something in their past? Something else in the world around them? SomeONE in the world around them?

Because a character's voice is shaped so much by their traits and backstory, it's important to know those things about your character. Take time to get to know your character. This means different things for different people. For me, it means an extensive character worksheet and spending pre-writing time trying to view MY world from the character's head. It also means discovering them through the story, so the voice often changes in subsequent drafts.

I am always asking myself WHY and HOW. Why is this character sarcastic/sweet/bubbly? How does her love of X,Y, or Z affect the way she sees the world? How do certain character traits (optimism/pessimism, dry sense of humor, impatience, etc.) come out in her voice? This helps me take a particular character's voice into a more definable realm, so I can purposely execute their voice instead of letting it be all over the place.

Here's a silly example. My son is in love with Winnie the Pooh. Each of those characters has a different "voice." They have their physical voice, of course-- what they sound like-- but if we just read words on the page from each of them, we'd know who they were without the sound. Pooh would likely be relating something to honey, because that's what he loves. Rabbit would be worried/irritated about something, because he's wound very tightly. Tigger would be excited, self-centered, and relate everything to bouncing, because that's his personality and love. Owl would tell a long-winded story relating the conversation back to his past, because that's what's important to him.

Of course, sometimes a character voice comes to you out of the blue. I have a character for my new WIP idea that is coming in loud and strong, and I hardly know anything about her. Which, of course, is where the "undefinable" part comes in. If that happens to you, run with it! But don't be afraid to expand and fine-tune it as you go.

So, my friends, don't be afraid to take "voice" beyond sarcasm and snark. And do tell-- how do you define the ambiguous term of voice? How do you pull it off? Do you have any tips that help you execute it?


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23 comments:

Jolene Perry said...

I have to find a way to relax into BEING my character, and then it just comes. That's the ONLY way my voice and my characters' voices come off.

Great post :D

Angela Cothran said...

These are all great tips. I especially love that voice doesn't need to be snarky or mean.

For me voice has everything to do with letting readers really know your characters.

Jenilyn Tolley said...

The other day, my 4 year old really wanted to draw pictures with me, so I sat down with him and drew pictures of the characters in my new WIP. I was surprised at what I learned about the different characters by adding details when I drew them. I'm NOT an artist, by any means, but by getting the vague mental ideas out in a different creative outlet, it was easier to put words to the ideas I had and learn how the characters felt and interacted with the world.

i'm erin. said...

This is a great post. I sometimes find that Mt characters voice changes by the end of the book. That's probably because I don't know her well enough in the beginning.

Julie Musil said...

John Green is so awesome with this. Each of his characters has a unique, strong voice. And even though there are many characters, I never get them confused because Green has done such a great job of making them stand out. I learn so much from his books!

Meredith said...

It's amazing how a voice can just come to you, isn't it? But a lot of times I have to create detailed character profiles to discover a character's voice--it just depends. Great post!

Lisa Gail Green said...

I always say my acting background is unbelievably helpful in this case. I am *inside* the characters head. I know that doesn't help, it's hard to explain, but that's what works for me! :D

Lynda R Young said...

I agree it's a difficult subject but you did a brilliant job of it. There's not only the character's voice, but there is also the author's unique voice as well. Both are particular difficult to edit in. It takes a certain courage to pull off.

Jenny S. Morris said...

This is a great post. You didn't say anything about Eore. He was my favorite.

I tend to see things in the world around me, and one of my characters will come to mind. How they would think that was funny, or how they would hate that. I've even tried looking at the exact same thing, and seeing if from the different characters that are bouncing around in my head.

Adrienne said...

I'm really not organized enough to keep notes, much less refer back to them, but I've found that imagining them in their living space with some free time on their hands has really helped me get to know my characters better. Also, sometimes I find a song that feels like a particular character, and I'll listen to that before writing.

Krispy said...

I think you did a great job explaining voice!

I don't do character sheets and all that, but I do try to pin down certain things about them so I can figure out their voices.

David Powers King said...

Thanks to my acting classes when I was younger, developing a voice is like stepping into a character that you're forced to create on the spot. It's a chance to be someone else, someone who does or thinks something you would never do. Opening that box can release a trove of characters that you never thought you had in you.

I like your definition, Shallee. :)

Kari Marie said...

I'm still working out my process, but this is a great primer on character voice.

Nice post.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I love just figuring out what makes my characters tick. In some books I know exactly what they'd do in the situations I throw at them. Others, not so much. I have to get into their way of thinking and analyze how they'd react to something. I love getting into their heads! :) And I can't really describe voice. As usual, you did a great job! :)

Abby Fowers said...

I could have an entire folder to bookmark all the awesome posts that you share on your blog! Love it!

Monica B.W. said...

OMG, can I just say I LOVE Tiggers's voice??? And I love him!
Okay, I know I'm not sounding mature, but I couldn't help it, lol.
Anyway, I think the Pooh characters example was awesome :)

And I think I'm like Lisa. Like when I'm writing from another POV I try to get inside the character's head and see things like he/she would see.

Anyway, it was really nice seeing you on my blog! I hope things have been going great with you! <3

Rachna Chhabria said...

For me a character's voice develops slowly as I delve deeper and deeper into the story and as I work on subsequent drafts.

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Fantastic post. You really do a lovely job. Voice is one of those things I don't post about very frequently because I have a tough time putting it into words...it's so intrinsic, you know? Great job!

Sarah Allen said...

Thank you for this. Very thought-provoking. It really is our own fearlessness and willingness to take risks that unblocks our own unique voice.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Akoss said...

I forgot to mention after reading this post last time, that your take on voice is by far one of the best I've read. It means I'm not as confused as I used to be. Thanks.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I loved this post - talk about a great time to find your blog! I like to imagine what my characters would sound like if they were sitting right by me, having a conversation. I also like to read the dialogue out loud, with my poor imitation of their vocal nuances. I have don't have to create a different nuance, I haven't captured their voice well enough.

New follower :)

Cortney said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog! Your blog is great!! I'm excited to be a new follower! I love your comment about the characters from Winnie-the-Pooh, it's such a simple thing, but so true! They're all very distinct. It also made me think about the characters from Harry Potter. Even the minor ones are so well-built that they have their own "voice" too. Great post! Voice is definitely an important factor in writing, especially to agents. Great to meet you!

Nat! said...

Much easier said than done... This is why I find it so difficult to write in first-person!
This is really great advice :) I've always had a hard time figuring out voice in third person limited. It's not exactly IN one character's head... But it's not omniscient either. In terms of character voice, it's kinda confusing. :S

 
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