Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. Think of voice as kind of like your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable.
—K.M. Weiland “How to Find Your Character’s Voice”
Over and over I’ve read or heard straight from writing professionals’ mouths that voice is one of the elements that sells a book to agents and editors. But what is “voice” when you’re reading words on a page?
The briefest explanation is, voice is personality. In fiction, of course, there are two personalities front and center–the author’s and the point-of-view character’s. In this post, I’m interested in the latter though the two overlap.
First, why is a character’s voice, a character’s personality, so important? Because readers care about characters. They don’t want to read about stock, two-dimensional, plastic people who all act and sound the same. Rather, a character who engages readers comes across as one of a kind, not a boilerplate copy.
Writers, therefore, need to look for ways to bring their character’s personality forward. But how to do that?
The most obvious way is by what the character says. In dialogue each character, not just the point of view character, needs to sound like himself. His personality needs to come out in what he says but also in how he says it.
Voice in dialogue, then, is the fusion of content with delivery.
Content has to do with what the character says–does he swear, apologize profusely, speak in analogies, brag, comment on every particular, ask lots of questions, take conversations on tangents, and so on.
Delivery has to do with her word choice, sentence structure, tone, and manner. Does she bark out orders, clip her words, speak in fragments, drawl, elaborate her answers, speak with urgency, use humor, use down-home sayings, spout job-related jargon, and more.
In other words, each character should sound like an individual with his own way of speaking.
Recently on a website allowing writers to critique various aspects of each other’s work, there was a session for dialogue. Here are a few lines from one entry which illustrate how content and delivery can create a strong, engaging voice:
“I thought you said you had a dog,” he says, dubiously eying the door.
“I do. I also said she was small.”
“That doesn’t sound like a dog. It sounds like a chipmunk on crack.”
I can’t really argue. She does. The door is barely open before she bursts outside, looping around my ankles and barking at Will, hopping on all fours with every outburst.
“That’s a dog?”
“So I’m told.”
“That is not a dog,” he tells me. “It’s a wind-up toy.” He looks into the apartment’s depths, then back down at the frantic pup. “Where’s the rest of it?” (“Talking Heads #13,” from Miss Snark’s First Victim)
In just these short lines, a picture of the character Will forms. He’s got strong opinions and expectations laced with humor. But the first person character also shows a bit of her personality, not as much by what she says but by what she’s chosen. After all, this little barking menace is the dog she picked for a pet.
Character decisions, then, are a key component for creating a strong voice. Does she choose to hold her tongue instead of confronting the worker who regularly clocks out early? Or does she go straight to the boss? Does he drive the speed limit when his wife is in the car, then let it all out when he’s alone? Does he promise to be home at six for dinner and arrive a half hour early or does call to say he has a business dinner he can’t miss so won’t be home until late?
Each decision a character makes contributes to his voice. But to create a unique voice for her characters, an author must stretch her thinking so that she doesn’t rely on the done and done again—the cranky school teacher, the stuffy judge, the dumb-blond cheerleader, the inattentive babysitter. To develop a character with a captivating voice, an author needs to think beyond the norm.
At the same time, characters need parameters. School teachers do have certain commonalities. Having a teacher decide to come to school in shorts instead of the usual staff dress code is not a way to show his strong voice. It’s the way to have your character get fired. A writer may wish to show that the teacher is caring instead of cranky, but she can’t decide to leave her class unattended so she can counsel a troubled teen. In other ways, teachers must behave like teachers, to a point, and lawyers must behave like lawyers, firemen like firemen and so on.
There’s a balancing act, then, between creating a character who acts in a recognizable way for his position and who acts in a unique way consistent with his personality.
A third tool writers have at their disposal is internal discourse or monologue, used primarily with a point of view character. A character’s thoughts should reveal his attitudes about society, his friends, God, himself, authority, business, money, recreation—really, all of life.
Is she an optimist or a pessimist? Is she hopeful about the future or is she cynical? Does she love her family or is she trying to find one who will adopt her? Does she care about human trafficking or is she thinking about looking for work in the sex industry?
Who the character is, what he’s struggling with comes out in his “private” thoughts. An author should capitalize on the opportunity to bring the life of the character into these thoughts. They should not be generic, ones that any other twenty-five-year-old police rookie would have or ones that any other pioneer woman heading out West in the 1850s would have.
In conclusion a strong character voice depends upon the author knowing the character’s personality, developing it uniquely, and showing it through dialogue, decisions, and internal discourse.