Almost every character should have their own voice—their distinctive way of communicating their worldview.
To illustrate, here are three lines from Harry Potter that reveal Hermione’s, Ron’s, and Harry’s individual voices, respectively.
“Don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you…”
“Can I have a look at Uranus too, Lavender?”
“I don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me.”
Because Hermione believes in following rules, she regularly tells Ron and Harry to do likewise, and she’s often very logical about it. Ron, however, tends to be a little coarser than the other two and usually says comical one-liners. Finally, Harry, who is always associated with trouble, often has to defend and explain himself.
When boiled down to its most basic parts, voice is made up of two things:
What the Character Talks (or Thinks) about + How She Says it =
What Your Character Talks About
What someone chooses to talk about (and not talk about) reveals character. It reveals worldview, personality, and priorities. For this reason, it’s often helpful to work from the inside out. Knowing your character’s wants, needs, flaws, fears, and layers, will make crafting their voice easier. With that said, it’s also okay to work from the outside in, especially for side characters. You may craft a pleasing voice that then indicates who the character is.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits often talk about food. They eat a lot more than other characters so food is a higher priority for them. Because they bring up food a lot, we know it’s what they are thinking about a lot. They don’t casually strike up conversations about advanced battle tactics; they don’t have a war-based background. And any conversation they do have about battle tactics wouldn’t be on the same level as a warrior.
So, their culture, interests, and experiences influence their voices. And because they come from similar places, they talk about similar things. However, each Hobbit still has his own voice (because each Hobbit has his own personality). While Pippin would ask about second breakfast without a second thought, Frodo wouldn’t say anything.
How Your Character Talks
Just as the character’s background and personality influence what she talks about, they also influence how she talks. Education, age, and social circles will factor in as well. You will want to consider word choice and speech patterns, and when appropriate, slang and dialect. The character’s dominating emotions can also play into their voice’s tone.
Listen to how Samwise Gamgee talks:
“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo . . . Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. . . . . Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going.”
Notice words like “Mr. Frodo,” and “folk,” help establish Sam’s voice. Pretend, instead, Gandalf said this. The word choices and speech patterns would be different. Instead of “lots of chances” he might say “many opportunities.” He might pause in different places and use different sentence structures. He’s far more educated and experienced than Sam, so he’d say those same thoughts in a different way.
Character Voice in Viewpoint
Whether in first person or third person, most stories today are written from the point of view of a character (usually the protagonist). This means that character’s voice will influence the narration. However, actually getting that on the page can be a little tricky. Here are three quick tips.
Regularly Write in Deep POV
“Point of view penetration” refers to how deep the writer gets into the character’s perspective. At the deepest level, the prose takes on the thoughts and attitudes of the character. This is the most effective place to be to get voice on the page (learn more).
Utilize Similes and Metaphors
What your viewpoint character chooses to compare something to will tell us a lot about him. If he compares the color of the sky to the white static on the television, we know he spends more time around or thinking about t.v. than he does nature.
Add Lines that Speak to Worldview
Watch for opportunities to slide in a worldview your character has about something that comes up. Maybe someone your viewpoint character is listening to references the police. Assuming it suits the passage, go ahead and slide in a brief line that clues us into what that character thinks about the police. To them, are they “pigs”? People to avoid? Or protectors?
Here are some more dos and don’ts of getting your viewpoint character’s voice on the page.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.