Think about some of your favorite series – either books or TV shows. Why do you keep going back for more?
It's most likely to be about the characters because people are interested in people. We experience life vicariously through the experiences of others, real or fictional, and that's why we love character-driven story.
In today's article, science fiction author Don Foxe outlines some ways to develop your character voice.
For a character to become believable, they must present a unique voice.
When a reader believes this person could be real, you then have the opportunity to entertain with what they actually say. Their voice is not what they say, but how they talk. A lyricist may produce a beautiful message, but if the singer is off-key, we never hang around to hear the essence of the song.
When we read a story, the characters maintain our interest.
Protagonist, antagonist, and all the spear-holders move the plot along with thoughts and open dialogue. There is no overstating the importance for a writer in bringing characters alive in the reader’s imagination.
Making sure each character has his or her own voice becomes key to providing the link which becomes the hook wherein the imaginary person becomes important to the reader.
A writer must first provide a good story. Accepting you created a worthwhile plot, you cannot let the reader down by handing the reins to unfinished characters. The writer is tasked with producing the ‘thoughts’ and ‘words’, but you are also responsible for the voices. When we read, we ‘hear’ dialogue.
If we do not believe the character would say what you have written, we lose interest.
Here are four ways you can develop your characters' voices:
1. Character Profile
A short character profile keeps you in touch with their personality. Obvious physical features can be within the profile, but a bio is the desired result. Include:
- Nationality – down to part of country, section of city or town
- Education; even grades
- Work experience
- Life experiences that create changes: accidents, relationships, and relocations
From this bio, build your character’s personality. Introverted? Class clown? Opinionated? Anger issues? If you already have a vision of your character, back-build the bio to support the personality. Either way you will discover reasons why they would or would not use certain words.
The protagonist may use phrases popular in pop culture. A love interest who uses old-fashion phrases like ‘the cat’s meow'. A co-worker, hesitant to join conversations, may begin with ‘Not that it matters,’ before expressing an opinion aloud. Keep characters consistent to keep them believable.
The more important the character, the more time spent in this practice. Not only do you become more comfortable with them, you may discover future stories hidden within the details.
Note: You do not need to share the character’s bio with your readers. Let them see and hear for themselves. It is much more entertaining.
2. Chill Your Ego
The most obvious mistake new writers make is forcing their ‘wit and words’ onto a main character, or worse, all of their characters. This is a nuance not often picked up by editors, almost always overlooked by the writer, and results in a failure to connect the reader to the story.
You know that guy being interviewed on television who says ‘you know’ after every third word, ‘you know’ because he uses it for filler, and ‘you know’ he does not realize he says ‘you know’ constantly ‘cause, ‘you know’ he does it constantly? This becomes white noise to the speaker; irritant to the listener.
I present at conferences, and during one session fell into a bad habit of finishing nearly every point with “do you get it?” This is why my wife attends these lectures. When I fall into a lazy habit, she provides a sign to make me realize what I am doing. The subtle hands to the forehead, shaking of the head, and grimace forces me to listen to myself. Once you become aware of a lazy filler or over-used phrase, making the change is simple. Making sure you do not replace one bad filler with another, equally trite alternative, is more difficult.
We all have words, phrases, and combinations so engrained in our personal use of language, we no longer ‘hear’ or ‘see’ them as out of the ordinary. Phrases like: ‘at the end of the day.’ ‘he thought to himself.’ ‘and therefore.’ Words we use as filler, such as: ‘otherwise.’ ‘whatever.’ ‘then’ and ‘that.’
If you have multiple characters using the same ‘unique’ words and phrases, you destroy their voice with yours. You may not notice the cross-usage. There may be nothing grammatically incorrect to fix. It is not so much a failure of proper writing, as a failure to perceive words that make you feel comfortable as making someone else uncomfortable.
Let’s say you use the phrase ‘even so.’ A character uses it in dialogue: “Even so, I do not believe we should venture into that dark cave.” Another character, later, says: “Even so, the idea of cannibals in the city seems wrong.”
The second character using the same phrase takes away their voice and replaces it with the first character’s. It makes it difficult to separate the two, and, on a purely subconscious level, makes us not believe in either character.
There is a simple fix to this issue. Go to your main character’s first spoken words. Can you perceive any words or phrases, or even word combinations even slightly odd, or, perhaps, decidedly you?
On your toolbar in Word, select EDIT. Open FIND. In the search bar, type or paste the words. How often do they appear in your overall work? View each instance, and note how often they are part of another character’s dialogue or thoughts? [Ed note: You can search for phrases in Scrivener as well.]
When people are together for a long time, they begin to share words and phrases. Characters with long histories may do this as well. Otherwise, decide which character would most likely use that particular phrase, and make it part of his or her voice. When you FIND this phrase used by a different character, you have the opportunity for rewriting and providing this character a voice of their own.
By repeating this process, you will discover a number of words and phrases being overused and/or used by too many characters.
In changing how a character uses words and phrases, you will become a better writer. Giving each character their own speech creates personalities. Personalities connect with readers.
Some will get this, and some are too uncomfortable to playact. Good actors always prepare for their roles aloud. Great actors recognize when a character is out-of-sync and brings it to the attention of the director/writers. The very best way to hear your characters the way your readers will is to say their lines out loud.
4. Don’t Be That Writer
The fourth tip is actually a way NOT to give a character voice.
Do not use italics, bold, dashes, spaces, or any other printing tool as a short-cut for creating a character’s unique voice. For one, it is lazy.
Secondly, it wears a reader out! The fewer cutesy printing techniques the better. We read with our eyes, and these short-cuts break concentration. You destroy flow.
If the character has voice traits you can ‘hear’ as the author, but you are unsure how to get that across to the reader, in words, this presents an opportunity to learn. Read the works of another, where a character moved your emotions. Look for techniques in creative word-play you can emulate.
Fiction requires imagination. Imagination relies on the descriptions provided by the writer. Your characters are the best source to deliver your descriptions. Developing believable characters begins with providing each a unique voice.
How do you make sure that you create a unique voice for each of your characters? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Don Foxe lives in the scenic southern US town of Bluffton, SC. His sci-fi based action and adventure series, Space Fleet Sagas, currently has two novels published: Contact and Conflict, Book One, and Confrontation, Book Two. Foxe is a member of the Academy of American Poets with an Amazon #1 haiku collection, Seasons of Henka Suru and sequel soon to be released, Haiku Seishin. Learn more at donfoxe.net or on Twitter @don_foxe.