Writing: Character Voice

Voice is an interesting topic in writing. It applies to all types of writing, too, not just fiction. I have taught Freshman Composition off and on for twenty years, and voice comes up a lot in those classes. So I know what voice is—the sort of attitude and personality of the writer. It is related to tone, but isn’t the same as tone. Both voice and tone have a nebulous quality to them—like something you can feel but can’t quite put your finger on.

As Julie Wildhaber, writing for Grammar Girl, put it, “If voice is the personality of a story, then tone is the mood.”

I have a friend who writes a blog on biology, and one of the things I love best about her posts is her voice. She manages to write about this very academic topic in a fun, casual and easy to understand voice that makes you feel as if you are just chatting with a friend. Yet the tone is serious. Not deathly serious, but you can definitely tell that underneath the fun is a topic that deserves serious consideration. (Check out her blog: https://fakecongirl.blogspot.com)

So, yes, I understand what voice is. And I think as far as my non-fiction goes, I have a fairly distinct voice. It’s finding voice in fiction that sent me down the rabbit hole this week. 

Now, the first thing to do here is distinguish between the author’s voice and the character’s voice. If you are writing in first person, there really won’t be a difference between these two—the goal is to let the character do all of the talking and for the author to get out of the character’s way (i.e. the author needs to keep their own personality and opinions out of it).

But in third person narration, the author’s voice can be heard. Depending on how close the narrator is to the characters, the authorial voice will be more or less present. So if you have an omniscient narrator, your authorial voice could even be considered another character—especially if the narrator comments on the actions they are relating. If the third person narrator is sticking close to one character at a time, then that narrator’s voice is likely to be more subtle.

My goal for the novel I’m working on is to do a close third person narration. And it’s not the authorial voice I’m worried about (at least not yet!). What worries me right now, is character voice. If I’m going to follow two, or more, characters closely, I need to make sure they are distinct.

In order to help understand the characters and to help develop their voices, I’ve been writing some backstory scenes for each, and writing them in first person. (I got this idea from Lisa Cron’s Story Genius).

But this is also where my concern about voice originated—does my male character sound different enough from my female character? Eeeks! I’m not sure!

After reading a few articles and watching some videos, I discovered that most of the advice was the same: look at the character’s background (experiences, good and bad; how they were raised; education level; job; friends, etc.), worldview (optimist/pessimist, religion, philosophy of love or law or right and wrong, etc.), cultural influences (what region are they from? What is their nationality, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.?), mannerisms/movements (slouching, slurring, fidgeting, etc.), sound of voice, pace of speech, tone (nostalgic, creepy, uplifting, mysterious, etc.), types of comparisons used, age (slang and cultural references will be different depending on when they grew up), word choice, and dialect.

Meg LaTorre, of iWriterly, had a nice addition that I didn’t see elsewhere: look at the character’s actions and reactions. For example, how do they react to unexpected circumstances?

Though a lot of what she said was not new, Shaelin Bishop, in her video “How to Create a Strong Character Voice,” put an interesting spin on things. For instance, she talked about patterning, i.e. creating patterns in what a character says (content patterns) and how the character says it (linguistic patterns).

In content patterning, you can look to a character’s interests or work, to tailor the references and analogies a character uses. So if a character is interested in gardening, they may frequently (but not always, because you don’t want to over do it) use gardening images when they compare things. 

Linguistic patterning is more about what level of formality they speak with, what slang they use, and the sentence structure they prefer. And this becomes a pattern that makes the characters voices distinct.

Bishop also had a twist on tone: that it is the attitude of the character towards their own story and their audience. 

More practical advice came from K.M. Weiland’s video, “How to Find Your Character’s Voice.” She suggested writing every POV character expressing different emotions: happy, sad, mad, etc. Also write them in first person and third person. This is similar to what I’ve been doing, but for a different purpose. And this feels like good advice, so I’ll probably take it.

Ellen Brock, also had a practical bit of advice that was also reassuring: use editing to hone voice. Her point was that voice doesn’t have to come out perfectly in your initial writing; you can edit to improve figurative language, weak words, speech patterns, and more.

So it looks like I have some work to do to, but I also have a much clearer idea of how to go about it.

Sources mentioned in this post: 

Julie Wildhaber: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/understanding-voice-and-tone-in-writing?page=2

Lisa Cron, Story Genius: http://wiredforstory.com

Meg LaTorre: https://youtu.be/7aX9TB0NKcg

Shaelin Bishop: https://youtu.be/nKe4kYDD_ZU

K.M. Weiland: https://youtu.be/tJD7Rmhkz_o

Ellen Brock: https://youtu.be/lkFaiXrqTuQ

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