Finding their voice

Of recent times, I’ve been critiquing the work of a range of writers—from first timers to the multi-published. What is often the difference between me slogging through, and wanting to read more, is the characterisation. If you’ve been following along, you know this blog harps on about character. But something happened that made me remember the importance of character voice.

A few weeks back, I was caught out by one of my fellow critiquers for deviating from my character’s distinctive voice (being a lazy writer!). The critiquer corrected some of the dialogue so that my character “sounded like” himself. It was a great pick up, but also validation that if you create that unique voice it’s obvious when it doesn’t “sound right”. So, how do you create that distinctive character voice? Especially when there are so many voices competing for our attention.

Before you do anything else, be sure to read books with great characterisation. You’ll notice that in those books — try Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl if you’re stuck and need a light read — everyone’s voice is deeply specific. Even better, listen to the audiobooks. You will be able to hear the voices of these unique characters. Then it’s time to build your character’s voice from the ground up.

Find the point of view and attitude of the character. This is where your backstory will be helpful. Some of the work I’ve been critiquing have characters with accents native to their local areas. So too the point of view of the social milieu—someone who grows up in the progressive elite area of Berkeley, California, should sound very different from someone who grows up on a farm in Winston County, Alabama. The character’s attitude shapes the tone of voice. Ask a few questions surrounding that attitude. For example, when they have obligations (tip: even a two-year-old has obligations), what’s their attitude when they fulfil them? Or, if they regularly fail to fulfil them, do they make excuses or not even notice? The character’s religious beliefs will also shape their attitude and point of view, including the words they use.

Next, find that “center” to the character, and what their motivation is. This is where the specific personality shines through. Imagine, for example, two people who grew up in the same household—they may have the same attitude and point of view. But their personalities, sex, birth order, life experiences, and so on, can create profound differences, even rifts. If you’re not sure where to begin, ask yourself whether the character is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Is their glass half full or half empty? That will help with their self-talk. You can keep building from there.

Finally, once you’re in the editing stage, I highly recommend omitting the named action tags (or dialogue tags if you’re using those) in a scene of dialogue. (You can put them back later, if needed.) Where your characters have unique voices, you shouldn’t need them to know who’s speaking. It should be obvious. If it’s not, make it so.