The Voice of Character

I’ve been spending part of this week preparing to teach another creative writing class this term which begins tonight.  I’ve put together all the standard handouts on plot, characterization, and dialog, but I’ve decided to add some new information this time.  The subject “voice” seems to be a recurring topic in recent conversations with other writers.  How do you explain it?  How do you create it?  How do you know if you’ve got it down or not?

Voice is one of the more esoteric aspects of creating a character.  Understanding how the voice of a character develops is to understand how each of us creates and uses the language of our everyday lives, which is not a topic many of us spend I lot of time thinking about (unless you’re some sort of linguistics guru or something).

How characters speaks about themselves, how they describe others and the world in which they live, and how they talk about their inner thoughts and feelings all combine to give us a “voice” for this character.  Just as each each writer has their own style of diction and syntax (the words they choose and the order or style in which they use them), each character has their own unique way of expressing themselves with language.  It’s more than just dialog, though certainly dialog is part of the equation.  Voice is a result of the character’s history, education (or lack thereof), religion, family, friends, insights, and personal psychology all rolled into the verbal expression that a writer presents to the reader.

The voice of each character should be as unique as that character.  Though my sister and I were raised in the same family, by the same parents, attended all the same schools (until college, that is), we do not sound alike when we speak.  We had very different life experiences that helped to shape the way in which we express ourselves.  My sister Dinadina.jpg (circa 1982 – she’ll kill me for this!) does not consider herself a good writer; thus, when she ran for political office, she would send all of her written materials to me to be edited before she would mail them out or deliver a speech.  It was important to me as I worked on these things for her that I make them sound like hervoice, not mine.  Unfortunately (or very fortunately, if you ask my niece) my sister didn’t win.  I told her to blame me for being a bad speech writer.  She blames her opponent for dirty politics (that is a story for another blog).

So what are the steps to creating a believable voice for a character?

I’m not certain that anyone has yet developed a fail-safe system for this, but as I’ve spoken to a number of writer friends, I’ve found we all do somethings that are the same, or very similar, when we undertake this task.

First – consider your character’s age.  This doesn’t always mean that a 40+ year old character won’t sound a little younger, or vice-versa (Dean Koontz Dragon Tears has a middle-aged woman who sounds like a 20-year-old hippie from the ’70s), but with time, education, and life experience, our vocabulary and language use changes. 

Second – consider where your character lives or where your character has lived for most of his or her life.  In the state of Utah, saying “Oh my Heck!” is a cultural norm. In the Massachusetts, if you like something a lot, it is “Wicked good.”  California surf culture took the word “dude” and turned it into a generic greeting.  My cousins in North Carolina would refer to someone as “Crazy as a June bug,” for whatever reason that evolved. Regional dialect will color a character’s language, and may produce hints of an accent as well.

Third – look at your character’s history.  A character who has lived his or life in one location will sound much different when compared to a character who has moved from place to place.  A character who has experienced great emotional turmoil in his or her life (Jackie Foster – www.jazzyjackie.com)

will develop a different way of communicating from one who has had a fairly stable situation.  I know writers who even consider family birth order when looking at a character’s development and voice.  The first child in a family tends to be more conservative, more guarded, but also more driven than children who arrived later.  A middle child will be more competitive and less secure in his-or herself – always striving for recognition.  The youngest child will be the most laid-back, the carefree spirit, and often the most demanding because he or she will have been the “baby” of the group and is used to having things done for him or her.  Granted, this isn’t ALWAYS the way it works out, but a vast number of books on the subject have found that theories of birth order have some validity.

Fourth – look at your character’s education.  If you write for children, the language of the character will change depending on his or her age.  A character in second grade doesn’t speak the way a character in fifth grade does.  A character in seventh grade will typically sound different from the fifth grade one, and by high school, a character can sound like an adult in terms of vocabulary, but not in terms of emotion or sophistication. Of course, there are exceptions to this as well.

Finally – consider who this character is at their core.  What are the character traits this character demonstrates throughout your story?  What does your character value?  What are his or her hopes, fears, secret desires?

  A character who fears failure, who is out to prove daily that he or she is a worthwhile person, even to people who are not significant in his or her life, will use language that conveys an inflated sense of security.  “Look how wonderful I am.  See all the great things I do?  Don’t you agree I’m fabulous?”  This will be a very different voice from a character whose fear is being successful.  This character will already have acknowledged that he or she isn’t good enough.  “I don’t do that very well.  I’m not good at things like that.  Nothing I do is ever successful.”  While the character may not come right out and say these things exactly, he or she will weave these thoughts into what they say to others, into his or her internal monologue, and in how he or she speaks to or speaks of others.

For all its esoteric qualities, voice is still a technique.  It takes thought, it takes practice, and it takes an understanding of a character as a unique being.  The element of voice is what helps breath life into these imaginary beings.  Its presence can make a good character into an amazing person, and its lack can take a decent story and make it unbearable to read. 

Now, go write something with voice!

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