In Part 1, we talked about author voice and how to peel away layers of our identity to get to the juicy stuff. To dig deep and find the voices in all of us. Today we’ll tackle character voice.
So how do we make our protagonist’s voice grab our readers by the throat?
We mold their voice through their:
• Words: What your characters say, the expressions they use, differentiates them from others. JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE. I’m a thirty-something, middle class woman. How I speak is vastly different from a poor, male teenager from the Bronx. Your characters should not sound like you, they should sound like themselves.
• Thoughts: What does your protagonist think about? I think about my kids and spending quality time with my husband. I worry about juggling family life and work. I yearn for success in my career, for spiritual fulfillment in whatever form that takes. Our boy from the Bronx thinks about school, the hot girl with pink sneakers in biology class, or basketball practice. He worries about dodging the bullies on the corner and having enough money for lunch. He yearns for graduation, for basketball to carry him out of his run-down home, to have all the things he doesn’t have. Tailor your character’s thoughts to their unique situation, not your own.
• Actions: How does your protagonist react in certain situations or settings, or to others? Consider their history. If Jane survived abuse and is an adult woman trying to find herself, she may be skittish around men. Or maybe Jane’s angry as hell and burns things and has lots of piercings. The cool thing is, you get to decide how your character reacts, but it’s important to keep those reactions consistent and true to the personality you’ve contrived for them.
• World View: How does your protagonist view the world? They may have come from a crappy, hard-knock background, but maybe they’re a warrior, a survivor. They see life’s letdowns as a challenge—something to conquer and they go after it. Life is a game of chess and they’re going to play and win. Or maybe they’re the victim of their own destinies. They complain and whine and want everyone to feel sorry for them, to lavish them with attention because their life has been so hard. Life is out to get them, everything turns out bad for them because they deserve it. The way a character views life, how they understand (or don’t) the people around them, and how they choose to confront them, feeds their voice.
Let’s look at an example of voice done well.
This is an excerpt lifted from Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel, REVOLUTION:
Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, deejay.
Like Cooper van Epp. Standing in his room—the entire fifth floor of a Hicks Street brownstone—trying to beat-match John Lee Hooker with some piece of trip-hop horror. On twenty thousand dollars’ worth of equipment he doesn’t know how to use.
“This is the blues, man!” he crows. “It’s Memphis mod.” He pauses to pour himself his second scotch of the morning. “It’s like then and now. Brooklyn and Beale Street all at once. It’s like hanging at a house party with John Lee. Smoking Kents and drinking bourbon for breakfast. All that’s missing, all we need—”
“—are hunger, disease, and a total lack of economic opportunity,” I say.
Cooper pushes his porkpie back on his head and brays laughter. He’s wearing a wifebeater and an old suit vest. He’s seventeen, white as cream and twice as rich, trying to look like a bluesman from the Mississippi Delta. He doesn’t. He looks like Norton from The Honeymooners.
This piece is less than two hundred words in length, yet the voice grabs you instantly. The author is skilled at packing important character details in a very short space. Immediately we get a strong sense of the protagonist’s voice: the teen has an acerbic sense of humor and she’s well-educated. She’s living in New York and her friend is a rich, wannabe musician who has little sense of the real world outside of his privileged walls. Or maybe our protagonist is just angry.
Donnelly is a master of voice. As the novel continues you feel yourself living inside of the protagonist’s head. Andy’s (protag) pain becomes your own, you yearn along with her. The author accomplishes this through what we’ve listed above: authentic character words, thoughts, actions, and world view.
Need a little help fine-tuning your character’s voices? Try a couple of exercises.
1.Study books with alternating points of view.
This enables you to see quickly how unique each character’s voice is within the same novel. I recommend THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern or THE RUINS OF LACE by Iris Anthony. For romance fans I’d say try LORD OF SCOUNDRELS by Loretta Chase. All of these authors alternate character voice as the chapter changes and what’s more, their characters are vastly different from each other. They do an excellent job of making each of them “sound” different.
2. Write a journal entry for each of your POV characters.
What do they reveal to you? How is their language different from your own? From one another? This is a great way to immerse yourself into the character’s mind, and ultimately to bring out their voice.
How about you—how do you ensure your characters’ voices are authentic and unique?
Pat Haggerty joins us on Wednesday, talking about “Idea Planning and Story Capture with Scapple”
Bio:Heather Webb writes historical fiction, but reads about anything. As a freelance editor, she spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found Twittering helpful links, or on her blog sharing writing advice and author interviews for readers. She is thrilled to be a contributor to this excellent community at RomanceUniversity.org!
When not writing, Heather ogles cookbooks and chases her beloved gremlins. You may even catch her gobbling the odd bonbon. She lives in a small town in New England with her family, close enough to city hop, but far enough away to hear the frogs chirp at night. She can be found at her blog, Between the Sheets (http://www.HeatherWebb.net), or Twitter @msheatherwebb (http://twitter.com/msheatherwebb).
Heather’s debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, will be published by Plume/Penguin in 2014.
- It’s All in the Voice by Heather Webb
- Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, Goals with Heather Webb
- Editor Heather Webb – Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Character Arc
- Manuscript Readiness with Heather Webb
- Character Motivation Part One: Using Your Inner Critic to Shape Your Protagonist By Heather Webb