Firstly, ‘voice’ is a somewhat ambivalent word that describes the feeling, tone, or personality behind the writing. For instance an author, or characters voice (or writing style) could be described as witty and sarcastic, direct and to the point. An author finds their voice when they develop a particular way of writing that is distinct in all their works. It has something to do with common word use, sentence structure, and the impression that is left with the reader after reading their stories. Comparatively, a character’s voice is similar in that it is distinct to them, and sets them apart from the rest of the characters in your story.
The way I ensure my characters are distinct from each other is always identifying their background, identity, and motivations first. From there I may list words or phrases that are common in their dialogue. Maybe a certain way of acting, physical ticks, disability and/or phobias. Do they suffer mental illness, discrimination? All of these aspects play on how a character behaves and lets you develop a style that is unique to each member of your cast.
Why is this important? Well you want your reader to clearly identify who is speaking, or from which character’s perspective the narrative is delivering from. It avoids confusion and keeps the reader engaged.
You don’t want to have to write “so-and-so said” after each line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary and kind of amateurish. It shows intelligence and great writing skills if a reader can immediately identify which character said what line, or from what perspective a narrative is taking from a single sentence or two.
I’ve experienced reading some novels where I’ve had to go back and re-read half a page because I wasn’t sure who was speaking, or which character was controlling the narrative. It’s frustrating and takes you out of the story.
My experiences in working as a screenwriter amplify this device even further – writers quickly identify if the dialogue is representative of the character in the script. It’s not uncommon to find them repeating catch phrases, inventing slang, and word chains. For example Lori in the ‘Glimore Girls’ was always using dialogue that was intelligent and chock-full of long thesaurus-sourced words. This type of dialogue was representative of her passion for knowledge and love of having conversations with her mother. Or even Giles from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ where he would have fatherly advice, broke things down for simple explanations. While he is also a bookish, intelligent character, his motivations were different. On the reverse side of things, Giles became a bit of a characture of an English gentleman, so that is something to avoid unless you are writing for comedic purposes.
We tend to create a voice intuitively to some extent. There is already a person realized in our head from which we are writing. But in order to really nail voice, we need to take a step back and look at our manuscript with fresh eyes and involve as many tools as we can to separate our characters. The clearer you are, the more understanding your readers will have. Our target market comes from a wide variety of backgrounds in culture and education, so the more distinguished you can make the voices of your cast, the better. And it also provides you with a diverse cast – giving a plethora of characters that your reader can relate to.
A handy tip could be to pin up a few character profiles on your wall. Pictures and notes that are unique to your character and their motivations – what is driving them through the story. Then in the 2nd draft stage (so not to ruin your creative flow when getting the bones of the story down) start applying those attributes to every presence the character has in your manuscript and ensure it rings true to their profile.
Of course there are many other ways to differentiate voice – maybe a more physical approach by changing font for each perspective when printing your novel, or definitive chapter headings with the character’s name… it’s up to your own preferences, your creative process and expression, and the tone you want for your book. Don’t be afraid to experiment in the beta reading/testing process and gauge reader reactions.
What tips do you use to help create your voice? How do you create a distinctive style for each characters perspective? I’d love to hear about other methods for cultivating voice. Comment below.
And in the meantime, as always, happy writing 🙂
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