Voice is an element that can make or break a book.
Even if a book’s premise isn’t fresh or if the story hits on a few overdone scenarios, clichés, and tropes, voice will have readers flipping through the pages, wondering what will become of their beloved characters. On the flipside, if a book has a twisty plot and amazing world building, but the character’s voice falls flat, readers are very likely to go in search of another story.
If you’re anything like me—scouring Twitter and the Internet to learn what books are selling and what industry professionals can’t help but to talk about—you will likely have noticed that many agents and editors rave online about voice. Which had me wondering: how do you define voice? More importantly, how can you ensure your character has a distinct one?
Character Voice: The Basics
At its core, character voice is simply a distinct personality—where the character is so three-dimensional, they practically lift off of the page. They have unique (and sometimes conflicting) desires and goals with a history/backstory bringing them to where they are today.
Think of a friend, relative, or family member who, in any situation, can make you laugh. Now, dig deeper. Why is that? Is it the timing of their comments? The delivery? Or, perhaps, is it the distinctive arrangement of words—saying things in such a way that always surprises you?
Character voice can often be best portrayed in dialogue. Think about the words the character chooses. What’s their dialect? Do they have an accent? Look at the mechanics of their sentence structure. Is the character educated and therefore speak in long sentences, or do they speak in short, clipped sentences? Now, think about their personality—are they generally an optimistic, pessimistic, narcissistic, happy, opinionated, cocky, or angry character? Show that in the words they say as well as when they choose to speak. Maybe your character gets chatty when they’re scared or maybe they don’t speak at all and turn into themselves if they’re facing conflict.
But voice isn’t just the words your characters utter. It’s the narrative as well.
In my opinion, it’s easier to convey voice in dialogue. The narrative is where things can be tricky and decidedly more difficult. But let’s see if I can shine some light on this nebulous topic.
How to Give Your Character a Distinct Voice
Like people, characters should have their own personalities.
To do this, the first step is to avoid archetypes. Literary Devices defines archetype as “a typical character, an action, or a situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature. An archetype, also known as ‘universal symbol,’ may be a character, a theme, a symbol, or even a setting.” (Literary Devices also dives deeper into specific character archetypes, such as the hero, mother figure, and the mentor.)
The second step is to create a backstory for your character. If they’re important enough to have a name, then the reader needs to know what motivates the character to do… anything. Does the character have a hardship in their past preventing them from opening up easily to other characters? Or, perhaps, did that same hardship make the character seek out love wherever they can get it?
For both dialogue and the narrative, word choice is key. Is your character educated? In which case, they might have a flowing, beautiful vocabulary. Or, perhaps they never received a formal education and speak in contractions and sentence fragments. Where did your character grow up? The culture/region will likely impact their choice of words as well as how they see the world. How old is your character? If they’re very young, they will likely not have an extensive vocabulary just yet and see the world through a child’s hopeful/curious eyes. Are they confident or shy? Or do they have any unique quirks or mannerisms? All of these things will contribute to what words a character says internally or externally.
The character’s personality, history, and vocation, specifically, will also impact how they view the world, which ties neatly into metaphors and similes. A farmer, for example, might compare the blonde hair of the woman he loves to the color of the stalks of wheat he tends to; while a reclusive shepherd who dislikes children might compare them to disobedient members of his flock. When writing metaphors and similes, carefully consider a character’s knowledge and experience and how the two impact the life experiences character relates to.
Of course, thoughts and words aren’t the only things that convey a character’s personality, but their action or reactions. The hero, for example, may say they don’t want to get involved in a conflict when their friend repeatedly asks them for help. But when their friend gets into trouble when addressing the conflict on their own, the hero immediately jumps into the fray. That action conveys the character’s loyalty.
Mannerisms or physical description can also help to characterize your protagonist and secondary characters. If the character is a drunk, perhaps they slur their speech. If the character has anxiety, show how they shy away from the things making them anxious or if they tremble/can’t speak if they have an anxiety attack. These physical descriptions can be used to your advantage in place of dialogue tags (he/she said). How a character holds themselves when speaking (slouching, antsy, etc.) will convey how the character is feeling about a given situation.
Next, give your characters flaws. It isn’t fun for readers to follow around a perfect character who already has everything they desire. If your character has been cheated on in the past, for example, maybe this character is bitter or cynical. Throughout the book, we can then watch as this character slowly fights to overcome their scars throughout their emotional arc to allow themselves to fall in love or make friends.
These are just a few of the ways to give your characters unique voices. Remember, every named character should have a distinct personality that is conveyed by showing (not telling) in the story, which can be done in a variety of ways: word choice, metaphors/similes, mannerisms, and more. (To learn more about how to show vs. tell in your writing, watch my iWriterly video.)
Conveying distinct voice really comes down to one thing: showing the unique personality of your character in how they view the world.
Meg LaTorre is a writer, BookTuber, developmental book editor, and former literary agent with a background in magazine and book publishing, medical/technical writing, journalism, and website creation. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for FREE feedback. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter (Book Nerd Buzz), and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.