Posted On August 19, 2013 by Print This Post

Your Voice Is Your Passport: Deconstructing the Mysterious Thing Called Voice with Kat Cantrell

Author Kat Cantrell talks about voice and how it adds authenticity to your characters and dialogue.  

Welcome back, Kat!

Voice is one of those elusive elements of good fiction that everyone agrees is critical but few can actually define. Even fewer can teach it. I’m not going to claim membership in the latter group. Sorry.

But I do know a few truths about voice. Readers will forgive a multitude of writing sins if your voice is strong. Voice is the chocolate of your craft arsenal—readers will come back for more because it’s really, really good. And it’s your passport into the world of concepts like “auto-buy” and “bestseller.”

Since it’s so important, let’s examine voice and see what it’s all about.

To me, the true definition of voice is: how you say stuff. Not how you write it. How you say it. Because it’s voice, not the way you Kat_Cantrellarrange the alphabet on the screen. Think about how you talk when you’re on the phone with your sister, or yelling up the stairs to your kids. How do you phrase things? If you’re from the south, like I am, all kind of crazy comes out of your mouth. One of my favorites is “it’s darker than the inside of a cow.” We also call people ya’ll and use a lot of sports metaphors such as “he knocked that one out of the park.”

Some of you may be wondering, what does this have to do with writing a book? Everything. Have you heard the advice to read your manuscript aloud? There’s a reason for that. Writing and speaking aren’t from different planets. The people in your story talk to each other but the characters also talk to the reader, and the reader “hears” them with your voice.

Voice happens with every word of your story, whether it’s narrative or dialogue. Whether you’re in the heroine’s point of view or the hero’s or writing in first person. Voice is in the description, the sentence structure, the cadence. You can only get it there if you have people in your head telling you what the story is supposed to sound like.

Once you start to think about how you talk, think about how other people talk. Your dad doesn’t sound like you. The grocery store clerk doesn’t sound like your-next door neighbor. What’s different about their speech patterns? Why? Is one more educated than the other? Is one younger, older, more friendly, or from Florida? Pay attention to this and write it down. Remember phrases and speech patterns that you like. Become a student of phraseology.

Don’t get out much? Study TV shows. Watch Duck Dynasty and then watch Through The Wormhole because there’s a difference in how people from Louisiana who manufacture duck whistles and scientists who study the universe express themselves. (If you were looking for an excuse to watch TV, you’re welcome.) The same is true for music. Listen to the lyrics of your favorite songs. How does the artist describe common themes or places or elements of life? Write those down and keep them in a file.

You’ve done your homework. Now what? Here are some tips that help get those elements on the page.

Clichés: If they come to me, I use them. Then, as I’m editing, clichés are a flag for me to reevaluate my point-of-view character’s voice. In THE BABY DEAL, the heroine was “waiting for the other shoe to drop” but I revised it to “waiting for her horse to fall off the carousel.” This works for the heroine because she’s been feeling like her life is going round and round, so it’s a good encapsulation of her conflict. I wish I could tell you where that came from (so I can go back and get some more), but it just popped into my head. See above about people talking to you all the time. Some would see that as a need for clinical help. I see it as an endless pipeline for voice. A reader mentioned that line in a review, which means I did my job.

The Phrase File: Earlier, I mentioned taking note of phrases and words that you like. Now go back and organize these by manuscript. Some of them will naturally group into themes or work for certain settings. If you don’t have a work-in-progress that the note can apply to, keep a general document and constantly add to it. For THE THINGS SHE SAYS, I pulled out my file and found a handful of phrases for the heroine to use. Example: “I’m afraid you’ve discovered my secret super-power. I’m a moron magnet.” This I know precisely where I got because my husband said it and I stole it. Once the heroine got started, she wouldn’t shut up and her personality exploded onto the page. She’s still one of my favorite characters.

Your Character’s Core: Every time I start a new book, I worry that my characters sound the same as previous ones. Because their voice is mine, right? And I’m still me. That’s when I think about why people sound different than others. Who is your character at their core and how does that inform their worldview? My engineer hero would think in engineering terms. I’m not an engineer, so I read a bunch of articles written by engineers and wrote down phrases that struck me. Then, once per page in the hero’s point of view, I changed the phrasing of the narrative to incorporate these terms. Example: the words bridge and construction became this line: “All his carefully constructed arguments regarding the status of their relationship had ended up forming a bridge to nowhere.”

If you’re still with me, you’re probably dizzy. But hopefully you’ve discovered some concrete applications for using the world around to create your writing voice.


Which of the three tips do you think you can apply to your manuscript today? Tell me about it in the comments and I’ll do a random drawing. Winner receives a print copy of THE BABY DEAL (US residents only please).

P.S. Anyone want to take a crack at guessing what movie the title of this blog is from? Okay, it’s not an exact quote. But it’s close. Get to IMDb-ing. (Yes, it’s a word.)


The Baby DealTHE BABY DEAL: In this Billionaires & Babies novel, award-winning author Kat Cantrell presents an offer that can’t be refused…

When billionaire entrepreneur Michael “Shay” Shaylen becomes guardian to a baby boy, he knows there’s only one woman who can teach him how to be a father—his ex-lover, child psychologist Juliana Cane. So he makes her a deal: if she gives him two months, he’ll give her a boost in her career.

She says yes. Suddenly, Juliana has everything she’s ever wanted: a home, a child—Shay. But she knows this seductive situation is only temporary. Because even as desire burns between them—so do the reasons Juliana has to say goodbye….


 Author Adrienne Giordano joins us on Tuesday, August 20th.  


Bio: Kat read her first Harlequin novel in third grade and has been scribbling in notebooks since she learned to spell. What else would she write but romance? She majored in Literature, officially with the intent to teach, but somehow ended up buried in middle management at Corporate America, Inc.

Kat became a stay-at-home mom and devoted nap time to writing. After many thousands of words, her dream of publication finally came true. When she’s not writing about characters on the journey to happily ever after, she can be found at a soccer game, watching Friends or dancing with her kids to Duran Duran and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Follow Kat on Facebook and Twitter.

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34 Responses to “Your Voice Is Your Passport: Deconstructing the Mysterious Thing Called Voice with Kat Cantrell”

  1. I won’t post the movie answer in the first post (spoilers!), but let me say I love you for it, and it is the sole reason I stopped in to read this blog. Some great tips! Xox

    Posted by Alethea | August 19, 2013, 5:59 am
  2. Hi Kat,

    The sameness of characters is one of my fears too. I sold the first book in a series about sisters. Keeping their personalities separate was a challenge.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 19, 2013, 7:42 am
  3. This was a great post. Great tips. I think today I can use the cliche tip in my WIP. My character is a seventeen year-old guy, but he is an empath (he feels people’s pain), so he is sensitive. I’ll have to think up some cliches and reword them to fit his character. Thanks for the tips.

    Posted by J.P. Grider | August 19, 2013, 7:55 am
    • Hi JP, I’m glad you liked the post! We’re supposed to avoid cliches anyway, so why not take the opportunity to infuse a little more character, right? I hope you find some great phrases to use. Thanks for stopping by today.

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 19, 2013, 8:09 am
  4. Morning Kat!

    Great to have you back again. =)

    For me, I need to work on my character’s core…changing the voices that are in my head to what THEY would say – not what I would say. Some characters are just there, complete with voice and mannerisms…some seem to be “me” until their personality develops the longer I write.

    Thanks so much for a great post Kat – it’s wonderful having you here!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 19, 2013, 8:04 am
    • Hi Carrie! Thank you for having me. I’ve learned so much from RU over the years and I’m just really grateful you guys are here!

      Character core is a huge part of my writing process. Like you say, some spring into being fully formed–I wish they were all like that! But when they’re more elusive, that’s where I depend on my files to help me find the unique facets. Good luck with yours!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 19, 2013, 8:16 am
  5. Kat,
    Thanks for the great tips. I’m a novice writer working on my first project. I love your idea of a phrase file but I think I will immediately work on my character’s cores. I think a good starting place would be my hero,a trauma surgeon and my heroine, a ballet mistress. I’m excited about making them more distinct from my other characters.

    Posted by Rachel Jones | August 19, 2013, 8:05 am
    • Rachel, I think you’ve picked two really great characters to work with. A surgeon will think in medical terms and likely be very driven, where as a dancer-type will probably be more flowery and notice the beauty around her. Or maybe you have a different take on it! That’s what’s so great about fiction; my surgeon-ballerina combo will be totally different than yours.

      I hope you get some great stuff down! Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 19, 2013, 8:23 am
  6. Love your idea of reading industry papers and writing down catch phrases for your core character. I also have interviewed someone in my character’s profession, asking them how would the respond, unique challenges, jokes they make about other professions, etc.

    Another help is different Myers-Briggs websites do a great job of highlighting how one personality views/responds to a situation compared to another. This helps counteract my personal instinct and replace with my character’s voice.

    Posted by Myka Reede | August 19, 2013, 11:11 am
    • Hi Myka, I LOVE that you interviewed someone! That is such a great tip. 🙂 I’ve never tried that but now I want to. And yes, I’ve used Myers-Briggs as well. So helpful in getting to the core of your peoples’ personalities. Great points. Thanks for coming by!!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 19, 2013, 5:37 pm
  7. Hi Kat,

    Thanks for this post on what is a constant conundrum for me.

    I’m told I have a great voice. I use the cliche twists – had to because I adore cliches. I use professions / industry terms in speech as you suggest, and I sprinkle a phrase or two here and there, specific to a given character.

    BUT I still don’t get how one separates author voice from character voice. It the author’s voice in the narrative and not the dialogue? And if so, what does that say for POV? Isn’t the narrative supposed to be from the perspective of the the POV Character and therefore his/her voice?


    Posted by Jenn | August 19, 2013, 11:20 am
    • Hi Jenn–I think you’ve hit the nail on the head (no cliche intended!). I do think of it as author voice in the narrative, especially in things like sentence construction, and character in the dialogue. But narrative can have character voice as well because the way each pov character sees things is going to differ.

      I really don’t think I personally have one of those voices you can pick out from book to book like some other authors and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I do exactly as you say and make sure the story is loaded up with character voice. Seems like a good formula for me.

      Thanks for hanging out with me today!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 19, 2013, 5:49 pm
  8. Hi Kat,

    Great post! I try not to use cliches, but in real life, people talk in cliches, and that’s always been a issue with me. Also, there’s a fine line between infusing the dialogue with words pertinent to a specific character while not making them sound too stereotyped. Then again, I tend to over think and obsess. 🙂

    Thanks so much for blogging with us again!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 19, 2013, 1:40 pm
  9. Oh, Kat, this is fabulous. I am working on cutting cliches and things like hearts beating wildly in chests and tingles racing up people’s spines. And of course the constant gazing into deep blue, brown, whatever eyes.
    Thanks for all the great ideas to help us look at our writing from a fresh viewpoint. I’m going to create a file called THE THINGS SHE SAYS right now!! Awesome! Thanks again.

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 19, 2013, 2:50 pm
  10. Hi Kat,

    I’m Canadian, please exclude me from your comment draw.

    Thank you so much for this post. I have a strong voice and have been struggling with the very thing you addressed here: making the protagonist of different books sound different. I appreciate the insight and tips you’ve given. My writer’s block has been broken.

    Marcie 😀

    Posted by Marcie | August 19, 2013, 3:14 pm
  11. Hi Kat,
    I enjoyed your post today.

    I recently started a phrase file. One of the girls I work with comes up with COUNTRY sayings. Recently I added “colder than clabber.” I didn’t even know what that meant so she explained it to me. One day I know that will fit into a book of mine.

    I’d love to be in the contest. Thanks!

    Posted by Jackie | August 19, 2013, 4:07 pm
  12. I think you can officially say that you can define AND teach voice. Thank you for this clear and useful information. I always worry my characters all sound like me, so this is very helpful.

    Posted by Kelley Hicken | August 19, 2013, 4:33 pm
  13. Thanks for a great post, Kat! I especially like your engineering example! As a Midwesterner, I don’t feel like I speak with distinctive phrases like my Southern friends do.

    It’s a mixed blessing that my husband is English and that I lived in England for several years. British-isms frequently sneak into my stories without me realizing it, until my frustrated critique partners say, “What the heck does THAT mean?”

    You’ve done a great job of defining and describing voice here. Thank you so much!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 19, 2013, 5:14 pm
  14. “Get to IMDb-ing.” Well, that and Googling have pointed me in the right direction. Since that was kind of cheating, I won’t post the movie my search led me to. Well, not directly. Since I mentioned Britishisms in another post, let’s just say this movie title is related to plimsolls. 😉

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 19, 2013, 5:18 pm
  15. The winner of a print copy of THE BABY DEAL is…J.P! Contact me at katcantrell (a) rocketmail (dot) com (but type it like a real email :)) and give me your mailing address so I can send it. Thanks everyone for joining me.

    By the way, the answer to what movie the title of my post came from is Sneakers. 🙂

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 21, 2013, 8:56 am
  16. Great blog Kat! I’m going to use some of these techniques 🙂

    Posted by Jennifer Hayward | August 24, 2013, 1:51 pm
  17. I learn a lot Reading all the articles. Always thought “Voice” was your style, the way you express yourself as a writer and something you don´t have to Think about, just being yourself.
    Now I understand “Voice” can be interpreted in many different ways. And also has to do with characters dialog. Thank you!

    Posted by Emma Gren | September 13, 2013, 7:33 pm


  1. […] Your Voice Is Your Passport: Deconstructing the Mysterious Thing Called Voice Kat Cantrell at Romance University blog about Voice in writing. […]

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