How to develop your character’s voice

How to develop your character's voice

A few years ago, I went to a conference all about the writing and publishing world. There, an editor from a big publisher gave a talk about how editors are looking for “voicey” novels. 

But what exactly is voice? And how can you develop a unique voice for your character?

Part 1: Defining voice

Your character’s voice isn’t just found in the dialogue. It’s the tone that gives your novel color, or the personality of your story. This personality flows from the unique perspective of your character and weaves its way into every aspect of your story. 

Voice can show up in some of the following ways:

  • Word choice: what vocabulary does your character use?
  • Inner thoughts: what does it sound like to be in your character’s head?
  • Body language: how expressive is your character? 
  • Worldview: what does your character believe about life and the world around them?

In our modern version of storytelling, we tend to prefer books that cut out the narrator. This means that, rather than having an omniscient narrator who tells a story about your character, we bypass the author narrator and instead read directly from the main character. 

Reading directly from the main character’s voice means that developing said voice is essential for telling a well-written story. (Note that this doesn’t mean your novel has to be written in first person—this style of character-driven narration can be achieved in the third person by using deep point of view. More on that later.)

Let’s look at an example.

One of my favorite novels is The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by author Jean Pendziwol. The novel is told from two points of view, alternating between Elizabeth, an old woman recalling her years growing up on a remote island lighthouse, and Morgan, a modern-day juvenile delinquent made to do community service in Elizabeth’s nursing home. 

Naturally, these two characters would have developed vastly different voices, having grown up in different time periods, family structures, and economic classes. As you read the book, all these differences in character are evident in the disparate voices. Let’s look at Elizabeth’s opening line in the first chapter from her perspective: 

“The tea has arrived with its usual punctuality.”

This opening line fits very well with what we know about Elizabeth: a well-to-do woman who grew up in the early 20th century.

 Now, let’s contrast that with the opening line from Morgan’s first chapter:

“What a fucking waste of time.”

Right off the bat, we know that these are two very different characters with two dramatically different voices. You can’t swap out one style of writing for the other, or use the same style of writing for both Morgan and Elizabeth; you would lose the authenticity and vibrance of the story in the process. One of the reasons this novel works so well is because of Pendziwol’s mastery of character voice.

This attention to voice is especially important if you are writing from multiple points of view. When reading The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, I was never confused about whose point of view I was reading from; the author did an amazing job of developing her character’s voices and making that obvious. Meanwhile, I read another book recently that was told from six different points of view, and while I quite enjoyed the book, I sometimes got confused and had a hard time telling which character was the one doing the talking. 

Part 2: Developing your character’s voice

So how do you actually apply this to your story? As you’re getting ready to develop your character’s voice, here are some points to consider:

  • Who is your character? Your character’s personality is probably the biggest factor to developing their voice. If you haven’t already, take some time to really flesh out your character. Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes? Are they more introverted or extraverted? Optimistic or pessimistic? What is their sense of humor like? Is there a single goal they’re obsessing about? What worries them on a daily basis? All of these personality traits will affect how much your character speaks, the way their inner monologue sounds, and the opinions they share on the world around them.
  • Where and when is your character living? Location and time will affect several aspects of your character’s voice, from the slang they use to how much they’re expected to speak to what kind of body language is appropriate in their world. Are they part of a specific subculture with its own customs? Are they living in a fantasy world that doesn’t use expressions from our world? How is their worldview shaped by the time, place, and culture in which your character is living, and how do these beliefs show up on the page?
  • What kind of story are you telling? What is your book’s genre? How about its theme? Who is your target audience, and what kind of language is appropriate for them? It’s usually best practice to find a tone and style that works well for your genre and target audience. The kind of voice you’d have in a funny children’s story will probably be different than one you’d have in a horror novel for adults. 
  • How many POV characters are there? If you’re writing from multiple points of view, consider your characters’ differing voices while drafting, and focus on this especially during the revision process. Do all of your POV characters have distinct voices, or does each chapter kind of sound the same even when coming from different perspectives?

Once you have answers to these points, you might find it helpful to create a voice style guide for your character. This is a list of storytelling traits your character has. For example, are there expressions your character tends to use? What about slang? How do they react when they’re stressed? Or joyful? Write a list to keep these details organized, and refer to your list during the revision process.

While you can certainly branch out from your list (you don’t want to be repetitive) most people in real life fall into habitual patterns of speech and behavior, whether it’s a favorite interjection or a tendency to become sarcastic when stressed. Using this to your advantage can help your characters feel like real people and help your readers feel more connected and endeared to them. 

Voice is might be one of the finer writing skill to master, but it’s one of the most effective and can also be one of the most fun. 

What voice characteristics does your character have? Comment below to let me know!

Wondering how your use of voice comes across in your novel? I offer manuscript critiques and editing to help you nail your novel’s voice. I also offer free sample edits! Click here to request your sample edit now.

Leave a Reply