“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
When reading a book we all want to connect to the characters. We want to feel their pain or their happiness, to relate to their relationships and respond to the way they act and talk.
But what makes this possible?
The answer is simple- We connect to our characters when they have a unique voice that makes them feel complex and human.
But what does it mean to create a character’s voice? How do we make it unique?
What is a character’s voice?
Just like in life, a voice is not only a way of speaking. It is also the way we see the world, and how we interpret and respond to it both internally and externally. Our voices are defined just as much by our actions, and our body language as they are by what we say.
Our voices shape the way we engage with the world.
Defining our characters’ voices and keeping them consistent is our way as writers to bring them to life as well as create a bond with our readers.
So what makes a unique voice?
Our voices are defined just as much by our personalities as they are by our background and cultural surroundings. As such, voices can change over time as we mature and experience more in our lives.
As writers, it’s important to be sensitive to these dynamics and treat them carefully. We want our voices to be consistent and yet we need to give our characters room to grow.
To create a unique voice we need to make sure we rely on all of its aspects-
- History– Our experiences shape our identities, and as such our characters are shaped by theirs. Knowing where our characters came from can help us understand them better and allow us to write their voices more authentically.
We should ask ourselves what experiences affected them most in life?
-What was their childhood like?
-Who were their friends?
-What traumas did they have in their past?
- Cultural surroundings– Society has a huge effect on our lives, and so it is important to consider it when developing our characters.
We should ask ourselves how our characters react to the social norms.
-Do they identify with them or rebel?
-What is their attitude toward politics or religious practices?
-How involved are they in society?
- Personality– Our personality is both the product of our upbringing and our innate characteristics. It defines how we act in the world and how we view it.
We should ask ourselves what are our character’s special traits?
-Are they introverts or extroverts?
-Are they aggressive, dishonest, sarcastic, obnoxious, greedy, or maybe loyal, loving, patient, sincere, or funny?
-Are they driven by determination, ambition or maybe low self-esteem or fear?
If we dig deeper and try to take a spiritual route, we can even say that we are each born with our own special gifts, which affect the entire course of our lives.
Was your character born with a passion for art? Politics? Or maybe Law or Mathematics? What is their essence?
Defining each of these aspects is an important step in identifying the core of our characters’ voices, and making them unique.
But how does that voice come through in our writing? How do we capture our characters’ essence?
With our character’s voice in mind, there are a few elements we should consider when conveying it to our writing-
- Accent, dialect, vocabulary, and sentence structure – When considering our characters’ backgrounds it is important to notice how they affect their way of speech. An orphan from the slums will probably not talk the same way a professor does. Nor will a child and a teenager talk the same.
Does your character speak more than one language? Maybe they have a special dialect or accent? What is their level of education?
This is a quick way to make your character stand out, but it is extremely important not to rely on it solely. Most of the time not all of your characters come from different backgrounds so giving different ways of speech can sometimes feel forced and not authentic.
- The tone of voice– As you already know your character, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to figure out if they are friendly, aggressive, cranky or charismatic. From their disposition you can conclude their general form of speech- Do they speak softly? Do they mumble? Do they speak really fast, or maybe really slow?
- Body Language– Body language is an extension of the voice and we should make sure they go hand in hand when writing. A shy person would probably behave differently in a room full of people than a person who loves an audience.
Focus on the main traits of your character and try to build their body language from there.
When trying to convey a character’s unique voice in our writing, it is important to remember that it affects both the way our characters act in the world as well as their inner dialogue.
Just like us, our characters are likely to keep much of their fears, hopes, beliefs, and regrets in their thoughts. Showing our characters inner narrative can allow our readers to really connect to the character’s unique perspective.
Some tips and exercises!
After we went over all the different aspects of creating a unique voice here are some tips and exercises that can help to make this process more fun and easier over time-
Create Character Profiles-
Write down in a notepad or a virtual doc about every main character in your book.
You can write their history, fears, hopes, dreams, morals, and whatever comes to your mind. You can always add more to it as your story evolves!
-More on how to build a character profile and exercises in my article The Birth of a Character.
Be attentive to your surrounding and actively try to break down the way people speak. You can talk to your friends over the phone, sit in a coffee place or even just go grocery shopping and simply pay attention to the way people speak and behave. Notice which words they choose, their slang, the quality of their voice- Tired, low, high, fast slow. Take notes!
Afterward, you can sit at home and ask yourself what makes the differences between each person? Are there patterns?
Read your dialogue out loud-
Reading out loud is a great way to find and fix many problems in our manuscripts.
A way to make it even more effective is to ‘cover’ the characters names.
That way you can see if you can tell the difference between them solely based on their speech. If you find yourself confused as to who is saying what, there might be a problem.
Write a dramatic Scene-
Pick a dramatic event like an accident, a death, or a first kiss and then write about the same event from different characters’ perspectives. Make a conscious effort to make sure each of your characters’ voices come through differently.
Then try to choose an event that would show the transformation of your characters’ moods and will allow you to explore their voices in extreme situations.
There are many more exercises you can try, but I think the best way to find your character’s unique voice is by experimenting. Find out what works for you. Get to know your characters until eventually, you can say “that’s something she’d say.”.
From then on you might even find that your characters speak for themselves!