Posted on September 21 2016 in writing & reading
Nailing your character's voice can sound like a nebulous and impossible task. Today, we'll look at examples of novels where the voice truly shines, and you'll get concrete steps you can use to improve your own writing voice.
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Have you ever had a critique partner say your "voice" just didn't cut it for them?
Or perhaps you've seen agents seeking writers with "a distinctive voice" (and you had no idea what that meant).
If so, then this is the blog post for you, my friend!
Let's start with the basics.
What is writing voice?
Writing voice is the personal flavor or flair you add to your stories. Have you noticed that although a number of books might have the same premise, once you read those books they seem vastly different? Sure, some of that is because the details in the plot differ, but a lot of it is because 1) the writer's voice is unique, and 2) their characters' voices are also unique.
Writing voice is the personal flavor or flair you add to your stories.
For characters to truly jump off the page and into the imagination, their voices need to be believable and consistent. An elderly man wouldn't react the same way a first grader would, right? No! In real life, they would look different, have unique speaking patterns, and react differently based on experience and perspective. And since the more we can reflect the real world in our stories, the more powerful they will be; which means we need to make sure our fictional characters illustrate unique voices too.
Take a look at these two different characters written by Sabaa Tahir:
Keenan moves toward me until he's standing uncomfortably close. He smells of lemon and wind and something smoky, like cedar. He takes me in from head to toe, and the look would be shameless if it wasn't for the slight puzzlement in his face, like he's seeing something he doesn't quite understand. His eyes are a dark secret, black or brown or blue -- I can't tell. It feels as if they can see right through me to my weak, cowardly soul. I cross my arms and look away, embarrassed of my tattered shift, of the dirt, the cuts, the damage.
"I owe you, Veturius." Her eyes soften, and the steely, Blackcliff-trained part of me shakes its head. She can't turn into a girl on me now. "Cain told me everything you did for me, from the second Marcus attacked. And I want you to know--"
"You'd have done the same." I cut her off gruffly, satisfied by the stiffening of her body, the ice in her eyes. Better ice than warmth. Better strength than weakness.
Unspoken things have arisen between Helene and me, things that have to do with how I feel when I see her bare skin and her awkwardness when I tell her I worry for her. After so many years of straightforward friendship, I don't know what these things mean. But I do know that now's not the time to think about them. Not if we want to survive ...
How would you describe the voice in these two examples?
For the first, I would say: thoughtful, timid, poetic.
For the second, I would say: strong, focused, sharp.
You can tell the author is a fantastic writer, but beyond that she has made two main characters in one book have very distinctive voices.
Here's another example I love, from Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda:
I take a sip of my beer, and it's -- I mean, it's just astonishingly disgusting. I don't think I was expecting it to taste like ice cream, but holy ****ing hell. People lie and get fake IDs and sneak into bars, and for this? I honestly think I'd rather make out with Beiber. The dog. Or Justin.
Anyway, it really makes you worry about all the hype surrounding sex.
Note how different the writing style is between the two different authors. But it goes beyond how the writers write (i.e. word choice, point-of-view, sentence structure), the voices are hugely different.
I would describe this voice as: irreverent, young, humorous.
All of the above are examples of excellent writing, all are from characters around the same age (in their teens), and yet each carries the author's voice and their own distinctive voice - which is what makes these stories shine.
For a non-YA example, let's look at the RITA award-winning romance novel Must Love Chainmail by Angela Quarles:
First, meet the heroine ...
If she were caught--caught doing what she'd promised to give up--what would the cost be? Too high. Oh, but the need. The need itched across her skin, jerked her fingers toward her phone.
Outside a stacked-stone Welsh church in Flintshire, Katy Tolson snugged her pashmina scarf tighter against the pine-scented October breeze whipping through their tour group and across the rocky terrain. Ruining our bachelorette vacation, my butt.
Maybe just a quickie?
And now the hero ...
Sir Robert Beucol kept a steady hand on the lady's back and steered his destrier up the outer bailey steps, his horse's iron shoes ringing against the stone. He nodded gruffly to a sentry and clattered across the drawbridge over the natural ravine, through the gate, and into the bailey, the lady was thankfully quiet. For lady she was, despite wearing strange hose and an oddly shaped cloak. [...]
God keep him, remembering the feel of those soft curves pushed against him shot lusty thoughts through his body and stiffened his privy counselor. Heavenly, she smelled, like the lushest fruit. Obviously one of the wealthier colonists. He halted any further conjecture and allowed cool determination to cleanse away any flicker of desire. He could ill afford such a dalliance.
Once you get over the term "privy counselor" (haaaa), note just how different the two voices are - it's something the author did such a fantastic job with in this book. The heroine is a modern-day gal, addicted to planning (and her phone), who gets transported back to the time of knights like Sir Robert. The two voices are brilliant, just spot on (granted, I've never met a Welsh knight, but the character sounded amazing).
As writers, that's our goal: to make the character sound like the real thing so that our readers are pulled into the story and not distracted by a flat or (worse) non-believable voice.
Now that we know what our goal is, let's talk about how we can make it happen.
How to Improve Your Writing voice
Do your research
1. Read. Then read some more.
Read widely in your genre. Know how authors handle similar characters. Find out which books are bestsellers, and think deeply about what makes the voice stand out in those stories.
The first step to improve your writing voice: Read widely in your genre.
2. Know your genre.
Although you can break rules and toe the lines of what's commonly accepted, it's always a good idea to know what the rules are for your genre before stepping outside of those rules. So before you begin writing your first-person Middle Grade novel about a pre-teen trying out for the school play, make sure you know what the expectations are for your genre (What language and subject matter are acceptable? How are touchy topics approached?).
Listen to how people like your character talk (or write). Do they have certain habits or mannerisms? What do they value? Where do they like to spend time (and with whom)?
To do this, find non-creepy ways to listen to your target audience. I have a writer friend who sits at her mall's food court and listens in on teen conversations. Another swears by watching television shows popular with her ideal readers. You could also find Instagram accounts similar to your main character, or blogs with a similar audience.
This is a little more difficult with children, but you can volunteer to babysit for a friend or sibling. Or help out with your local elementary school's tutoring or reading program. In other words: get creative! (But again, please don't be creepy.)
Know your characters
In real life, we could describe someone to another person by sharing their physical traits, personality quirks, or speech patterns. I encourage you to do the same for your fictional characters.
Go beyond what the physical characteristics, and jot down details to help bring them to life:
What do they say when they're angry?
How do they get from one place to another (run? walk slowly? skip? drive a mini-van?)?
What do they like to do in their free time?
How would their best friend describe them?
How would a non-friend describe them?
What is their most valued object?
How do they react when hurt? Afraid? Sad?
Use details like this to get to know your character before you start writing, and you'll be less tripped up by getting their "voice" down while you're writing.
After reading (and reading some more) in your genre, the best thing you can do is write (and write some more).
Try short stories or flash fiction to stretch your writing muscles, and focus on prompts that will push you to write new voices.
Try these to start:
Write the same scene from each character's perspective.
A mother trying to talk to her daughter about drugs.
A first kiss between fifth graders.
A 30-something career woman is heading on a vacation, and she's leaving her very-loved dog behind.
An ex-soldier is going back to school, and his first class is taught by an ex-girlfriend.
A rich teen boy has to take the bus for the first time and meets a girl from a poor neighborhood.
As always, feedback from other writers can help you spot where you need to improve.
Bonus! Advice from Angela Quarles
When I first shared this blog post, Angela Quarles reached out to me on Twitter with some insight into her writing process. She said, "This is the first blog post to use my writing to illustrate craft and--no lie--it feels good to have someone [recognize] the hard work I put into their individual voices. For the final pass w/that in mind, I did Katy and Robert separately [...] in revisions when I worked on polishing their voices, I edited each of her POVs all the way thru, and then his."
For those who are interested, Angela shared the full process (for another novel, but same POV/voice challenge) in a post on her blog:
My current novel has two Points of View (POV), and boy are they completely different. One is the quirky, slightly dorky heroine from modern-day America, and the other is a sweet, hunky hero from 1834. (It’s a time-travel romance). As you can imagine, their voices are completely different in tone and syntax. I thought I’d share my method of making damn sure they didn’t sound alike, not because I think this is THE WAY to do it, or that it is in any way groundbreaking, but just in case it might work for another.
P.S. Want to thank Angela for sharing her amazing insight AND see the results of her POV process? Buy MUST LOVE CHAINMAIL!*
That's my advice, but I would love to hear from you! How do you work on improving your writing voice? Have a favorite technique or tool to share? I would love to hear it! Hop in the comments below & let's chat!
Pssst: I'm also working on a resource to help writers with pre-writing exercises like character sketches. If you want to be notified when it launches, be sure to sign up for my mailing list (and you'll also get access to all my other free resources for writers).
Thanks for reading!