Helping Characters Find Their Voice

BY DAVID E. SHARP

Originally posted January 30, 2020

Character voices are one of a writer’s greatest tools when trying to create lively and interesting characters. While an author’s voice is about individual style of writing, characterization is the arrangement of a variety of trappings. These effects not only help distinguish a character’s voice from the author’s voice, but ideally create genuine personalities.

The careful composition of these voices can give characters authenticity saving a writer from cheese and trope.

DON’T RELY ON DIALECTS.

Your character may have a dialect, but don’t force one by writing it phonetically. Your readers won’t delight at your vocal versatility so much as grumble at you for taking them out of the flow of your narrative. An occasional drop of enunciation or of the last syllable works for a reader. 

Maybe a bit of Spanglish or the sporadic outburst in their native language can help a reader nail the sound of a characters voice without pounding them over the head.

UTILIZE SENTENCE STRUCTURE AND PHRASING.

Language is how our characters present themselves to the world. It’s a combination of the character’s nature, experience, values and drive erupting right out of a single imaginary larynx. Characters can be polite, abrupt, determined, or confused. All of these behaviors can be revealed by word choice or phrasing. 

Consider a warehouse during a zombie attack:

Shall we head out?

Come with me.

Yeah, let’s stay here where we could be killed.

Maybe we should get moving.

Let’s move.

DON’T MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS INFORMATION DUMPERS.

We all do it. Those first drafts are full of information dumps. It is tempting to reformat all of that precious data into dialogue. We must consider if it feels natural as a conversation. If in doubt, read it aloud. Language that seems too flowery or formal is a flow killer. 

Consider being chased by dubious agents.

Billy and Suzie have just darted into an abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Those mysterious agents in black suits and dark glasses nearly got us,” says Billy. “Who do you think they were?”

“I don’t know,” says Suzie, “If we hadn’t rushed into traffic, weaving around rushing cars at great risk to our personal health and then raced up a fire-escape, I am quite sure they would have caught us. I’ve never been so afraid since our parents died tragically in that roadrunner stampede exactly six years ago.”

“Ah, yes,” says Billy, “I remember the day. Let’s stop escaping certain danger for a moment and relive our tragic past for no particular reason. It was a sunny day. Beautiful and temperate in wild roadrunner country…”

NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION APPEALS TO ALL FIVE OF OUR SENSES.

Just as in the real world, characters must respond to events in the world you’ve built. Readers may or may not have access to the unfiltered inner voice depending on how you structure your story.

Writers are responsible for the silent thoughts that can provide characterization for readers. Dialogue is a single channel medium. Nonverbal communication travels across multiple channels. Not only the actions your character takes, but decisions and reactions play an important role in character development as well.

Again with The Mysterious Agents.

Billy and Suzie darted into the abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Who? Who were they?” asked Billy, leaning with wobbly legs against the stained brick wall.

Suzie braced herself against a dumpster. “I don’t know.”

“But why would they?” Billy asked. “Why?”

“I said I don’t know, Billy! Do you understand I don’t know!” Suzie turned to face him. “All I can say is we better not let them find us.”

Billy held back sobs and wiped the wetness from his eyes. “I’m just so scared, Suzie. I wish Mom and Dad were here.”

Suzie sat down next to him and cradled his head into her shoulder with one hand. “Yeah,” she said, “I know.”

POV CAN BE A POWERFUL TOOL OR A RIDICULOUS DISTRACTION.

The point of view we write from can also help us manifest our characters for our readers. This is narrative voice and using the different formats can influence a reader’s feeling about a character. One of our favorite people, Chuck Wendig, works almost exclusively in third person, present tense. He does it extremely well and explains his choice on his blog. 

We are communicators. It’s why we write. We have a broad array of tools to strengthen the impact of our language. Let’s use them.

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