Voice is one of those elements that can make or break a manuscript. If you get it right, the novel will live in the reader’s mind long after they put the book down. Without it, the story won’t quite achieve what you’ve intended even if all the structural elements are in place.
So… how do you find your narrator’s voice?
What Doesn’t Work
Here’s one thing that doesn’t work: verbal tics. How many times can you have your character repeat certain phrases before it starts to get, well, annoying? Not very many.
Here’s another: sarcasm.
Sarcasm is an easy voice to capture, so it seems to be the one many authors lean toward to make their narrator sound different. Cross it off the list. No one is consistently sarcastic, or angry, or melodramatic. When you make your narrator into a type like this, they come across as one-dimensional and unrealistic.
Who Is This Person?
The idea of voice only being a mood or a way of talking misses the bigger picture. Voice is a way of being in the world. For that reason, I would recommend approaching it from another direction: by exploring who this person is that you’re trying to bring to life.
While I don’t think character questionnaires are the way to nail voice, they can be a good steppingstone in getting to know your character—because I don’t think you can capture a character’s voice until you fully know who they are.
Look at how the answers to a few key questions can change the type of person you’re dealing with.
What does your character do for a living?
A baker will have a different way of viewing the world than a plumber or a doctor. They’ll notice different things, use their own analogies, have unique priorities, behave differently in various situations. You’ll know they’re a baker not because the author has placed them in a kitchen wearing oven mitts but because they see ideas for new pastries in the shapes of flowers. They’ll think like a baker.
If you were to read a story in which all you got was oven mitts and cookie trays, you’d feel like you were reading something generic—because the author would not have captured a baker’s way of navigating the world.
How old is your character? What is their marital status?
A twenty-something single woman will have a different way of dealing with people than a fifty-something woman who’s just left a long, dull marriage. Or maybe the marriage was abusive: that would give her another voice. Or maybe she’s never been married, but her sister is in a happy marriage: different voice again. She’ll have to manage Valentine’s Day; she might get upset by seeing couples at candlelit tables for two in a restaurant.
Voice is all about the lens through which your character views the world. One of the most significant things that clarifies this lens is their goal: what do they want in the story? If someone wants respect, they’re going to act in certain ways and say certain things that will be very different from someone who’s out for revenge.
Where do they come from? What kind of family do they have? Wealthy or poor, loving or abusive? Are they the first-born of a large family, or are they the baby? Are they an only child?
Every answer creates a type of person who will act and react in diverse ways. Many of these actions and reactions won’t be conscious, but they’ll be there, and they’ll cement in place patterns of behavior that will (hopefully) cause that character all sorts of problems.
But answering those questions is only step one.
Now, you have to put your characters into action: slip on their shoes and see the world through their eyes. Usually that means writing your way into the story in one form or another: by journaling in their voice, answering interview questions in their voice, or (my preference) simply throwing yourself into the story world and getting them moving.
This is why it’s so important to differentiate the narrative voice from the author’s voice. Unless the author is the narrator, they have no business speaking up. Your reader will have picked up a particular book to experience the world from the point of view of a female scientist in the 1960s (Lessons in Chemistry) or a college student in the classics who becomes enthralled with an eclectic group of students with whom he doesn’t quite fit in (The Secret History). The extent to which the author can deliver on that promise also turns out to be the extent to which they’ve captured the narrator’s way of seeing the world, which is… voice.
Why Voice Is So Important
Voice is not the only thing in a novel. But if you don’t nail it, you won’t have used point of view to its fullest potential, nor will you truly know your story—because you won’t know the main actors who are driving it forward. It won’t feel authentic, and your readers won’t feel the same emotional draw that they’ll experience when a character comes to life on the page and says, Let me show you what the world looks like through my eyes.
Isn’t that why we come to fiction in the first place?
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and editor who lives in Vancouver, BC. Her newest book, coauthored with David Griffin Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her novel My Long List of Impossible Things, came out in 2020 with Annick Press. The House of One Thousand Eyes was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and won numerous awards including the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in literary reviews world-wide.