Writing advice blog: character voice

Elaine Graham-Leigh

At our BGBW meetings, we have a regular slot where one of us does a presentation on an aspect of writing. It can be something we know we’re struggling with, something where one of us has done some thinking recently, or just a topic we’re interested in. We’ve decided we’ll start sharing these, so here’s our first one, on character voice.

Photo by João Marinho on Unsplash

It’s pretty obvious that when you have your characters speaking, you need to make them sound different from each other. If you’re writing in the first person, you have an extra challenge, as everything that you write then has to sound convincingly in the voice of your narrator. But you have to pay attention to character voice if you’re writing in the third person too. If you have any passages from the point of view of a particular character, those passages need to be in their voice, whether or not they’re actually speaking.

From whose perspective a scene is told makes an enormous difference to how you write the scene. Consider the example below of an argument between a couple.

This first example is from the standpoint of an omniscient narrator:

Eve was exasperated. ‘Honestly, Rob, I don’t think you’re hearing me,’ she said.

‘I can’t help hearing you, you don’t stop talking,’ said Rob.

He stepped towards her and she moved back against the door, alarmed. His face creased into a pantomime grimace.

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’m not going to hit you,’ he said.

Using the narrator voice can be an efficient way of getting information across, but it doesn’t let us experience what the characters experience. We know that Eve is exasperated and alarmed, but does Rob? Who is thinking that Rob’s expression is like that of a pantomime villain? This is an objective account of the argument, whereas maybe what we want is a subjective version.

Let’s try it in Eve’s voice:

It was so frustrating when she couldn’t get through to him. She tried and tried, but it was like throwing words at a wall.

‘Honestly, Rob, I don’t think you’re hearing me,’ she said.

His answer snapped back at her like a blow.

‘I can’t help hearing you, you don’t stop talking.’

She knew she was going on, but what else could she do? How could she help it? He loomed towards her suddenly and she felt herself step back before she could stop the movement. He hated it when she cowered, she knew. He grimaced at her, looking just like a villain from a panto.

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’m not going to hit you,’ he said.

We can see that the change in point of view doesn’t just change what information we have about what’s going on in Eve’s head, it changes the entire way the passage is written. The sentence structure, the length of the passage, the word choice all shift to fit with Eve’s voice, even though what she actually says remains the same.

Now let’s see how it comes out in Rob’s voice:

The trouble with Eve was that she just wouldn’t let it go. She was at it now. ‘I don’t think you’re hearing me.’ Well, he wished he didn’t have to, sometimes. She backed up against the door with that look on her face like she was expecting him to give her a slap. It was too much.

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’m not going to hit you,’ he said.

Again, Rob’s voice changes the length of the sentences and the whole passage. It also alters the word choices: note Rob’s use of ‘slap’ compared to Eve’s ‘blow’. Rob here is so exasperated that he doesn’t recount everything that’s said, whereas Eve is dwelling on every word, so it’s longer in her voice than in Rob’s.

So, what should we be considering when we’re thinking about character voice?

  1. Know your characters. You’ll only be able to write in their voice if you know what their voice should be like. Their views, their motivations, what their past history has been will all determine how they speak. You don’t have to put all this detail in your work, but it needs to be in your head.

2. Think about their physical presence. Do they wave their hands around while they’re speaking? Is their voice low or high? What do they look like? Again, you don’t have to tell us all of this, but it will help you write your characters’ voices if you can hear them.

3. Allow the structure of your writing to reflect your characters’ voices. If you have a character who tends to be terse, don’t write passages from their point of view in long, flowing sentences with lots of sub-clauses. Or in the reverse case, if your character loves stream of consciousness rambling, you’ll want to let passages from their point of view breathe a little more than you might otherwise do.

4. Use words and descriptions that fit your character. Eve, in the example above, thinks that Rob looks like a villain from a pantomime. That roots Eve in the modern day and gives us some clues about her tastes and background. If she were, say, an alien from the planet Zarg, that wouldn’t be an appropriate simile – we know what a pantomime is, but she wouldn’t. If she’s a modern woman, but is self-consciously ‘high-brow’, you’d probably also want to come up with a different simile.

You also need to think about the effect of the description. That Eve thinks this rather mocking description about Rob tells us quite a lot about her view of him, how afraid she is of him, perhaps how close she is to leaving the relationship. You should be making sure that what your description is implying is indeed what you want to convey.

When you’re writing in a character’s voice, don’t think, ‘is that a good description?’; think ‘is that a good description that this character, in this situation, would use?

5. Don’t over-use them, but catchphrases can help! We all have favourite phrases, so don’t be afraid to give some to your characters. I feel that Rob might say ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake’ rather a lot. If nothing else, these verbal tics will help you get into a character’s voice, and you can always go back and prune out overuse in editing.

What tricks have you found to help your characters speak? Let us know in the comments.

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