Tag Archives: character voice

A Character’s Voice

    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”

mouth-837375-mOver 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)

small-dog-745346-mIn 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.

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Filed under Characters, Dialogue, Voice

Heart Surgery

Pig_heart_bypassWhat mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?

Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.

How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.

Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.

Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.

The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.

The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.

What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.

  • Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.

Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.

Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.

In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?

  • Characters also need to be properly motivated.

Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.

The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?

  • Finally, characters need to be unique.

Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.

A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.

In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?

Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.

sunglasses by-the-poolThirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.

The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?

By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.

This article is a re-post of the  original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.

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Filed under Action, Character Developmet, Motive, Revision, Voice, Worldview

Fiction – Unique Voices

An author has a particular voice, but in fiction, each of the characters should have a distinct and separate voice, too. That’s how readers come to feel they know a character.

Recently this subject has come up in a number of ways. Last month I wrote a short, fun piece (there’s a quz 😉 ) about voice, especially in relationship to dialogue, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. I was playing off an excellent article about dialogue by author Kay Marshall Strom. Then this past Monday two other industry professionals posted on the topic: agent Chip MacGregor on his site and author Patti Hill at the team blog Novel Matters.

Chip focused largely on the writer’s voice while Patti expounded on the character’s voice. Here are a couple significant passages from each, but I recommend you read their posts for yourself.

Chip:

    YOUR writing voice will show up as YOUR personality on the page. When your family hears it read, they should know it’s you. When your faithful readers see it, they’ll know it’s not some other author, because it sounds like you. The word choice, the descriptions, the phrasing, the tone, the sentence length, the topics, the approach, the attitude – it’s all you. Your unique way of expressing yourself.

Patti:

    Elizabeth George defines voice (how brave of her) like this: “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking.” Voice is the tone that comes through the narrative, and tone is the product of knowing my characters better than myself. (emphasis mine)

Regarding the marriage of an author’s voice with his characters’ voices, Chip again, in a comment to the post:

    The best novelists allow their characters to speak and act in a way different from them — otherwise it would make for a very boring book. At the same time, I think there’s something in choice of story, theme, characters, approach, events, conflict, context, and what agent Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency” that helps reveal the author’s overall voice.

Why, you might ask, is voice so important?

Chip once more:

    As an agent, I find myself MUCH more drawn to a great writing voice than any other factor.

A great writing voice should set an author apart from others. It’s interesting because it’s different. But be careful (and I can only hope agents and editors are). A voice that is interesting for a paragraph or two can become tedious or annoying when stretched over three hundred pages.

I read such a book a couple years ago. The character was unique, without a doubt, and had a different outlook that came through in his voice. But the “difference,” to me, was unattractive. I didn’t like “living” with that character for an entire novel. His voice undergirded some traits that were not admirable.

So I think choosing a character voice is a bit of a balancing act. It needs to be different, but “quirky” can be asking more of your readers than they want to give.

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Filed under Voice, Writing Style