Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Every writer is exhorted to 'find their voice'. Don't imitate anyone else, we are told, write like you.

Okay, this makes sense. I am able to write with other writers' rhythms (I've got one mystery game that is very Jane Austen...on purpose), but it's easiest to write like me.

But never forget, each of our characters must have their own voice as well. Not ours; theirs.

Each character is in your manuscript for a reason. (if there isn't a reason, then maybe you should rethink them - but that's a whole different post). Give them their own voice. Their own rhythm. Their own vocabulary.

I've found this a wonderful tool for enabling each character to stand out beyond any description of their physical appearance or habits. I have one character who speaks in very short sentences. Another who has a rather dry sense of humour. One who is terrified of making a social faux pas and therefore picks his words with extreme care.

The better you know your characters the clearer their voice becomes. What is their level of education? Where did they grow up? What's the level of their self-esteem? The latter is very useful when it comes to vocabulary choices. A confident character will say what they wish; a less confident character will try to please. Some characters will take joy in shocking others and their language will reflect this. Do you have a character where English is their second language and if so, how fluent are they? Don't take the obvious road, it could be fun if this character actually has a better vocabulary than some others. Confound the stereotype.

Take a look at whatever project you're working on right now and just look at the dialogue. Can you instantly tell which character is talking? More importantly; could someone else?

Remember: although all these characters sprang from your brain, they're not you. Give them their own voice.


  1. You're right, the better you know your character the more true you can write them.

    I'm all for character sketches now, a real change for me!

  2. Elspeth - Thanks for the reminder of how important each character's voice is. In fact, you know a character is important when s/he has a voice and something important to say. It doesn't matter how many important characters there are (HINT, HINT) if each has a unique role to play and something important to say. Time for me to look my WIP over and see who's talking too much like me and not enough like him/herself.

  3. This is fabulous--it's one of my favorite tools, possibly because I seem to love child characters, and from their perspective the narrative CAN'T be the same. It's fun though too, to play with characters who hold certain prejudices, or characters with self-delusions. I think it really helps the reader get to know the characters on another level.

  4. Carolyn; I have learned the better you know your characters the better off you're going to be. Work before means less work later.

    Margot; Yes, I got the hint. Thanks. It helps.

    Watery Tart; I agree whole heartedly with everything you've written. Characters with self-delusions are especially fun.

  5. I'm always tempted to have one of my characters pepper his dialogue with "guv'ner." Maybe one day!

  6. Alan; I COULD actually do that. However a small dash of "guv'ner" goes a long way. But still...

  7. Great post! I'm nearing the end of first draft and will be tearing into the manuscript again next month. Some of my characters have strong voices now, but not all of them. I have my work cut out for me. Thanks for not letting me forget.

  8. Great advice, I'm sure your acting background comes in handy when you give voice to your characters. I find that reading the dialogue out loud helps me to keep the characters "in character".

  9. Awesome post! I've had this conversation with a few folks who didn't understand the difference between the author's voice, and the characters' voices. This explains it very well :)

  10. Carol- We have an award for people who finish their MS's!!! Let us know when that happens!

    As for this post...I must point out that too many voices can muddle a plot. Elspeth's point is well-taken, but it is also important to know which characters you really want to shine for your readers, with whom you want them to empathize and against whom you want them to rail!


  11. Carol; Best of luck as you near the end of your first draft. I'm hoping to be there soon.

    Elizabeth; It does, actually. I'm very grateful for it. I agree, saying it out loud really can help.

    Jemi; I'm glad you found it useful. There really is a difference between our voice and our characters.

    Michele; I respectfully disagree. Certainly there are main characters and supporting characters and one-line wonders. But I think each should sound different. In my opinion, for any character to be sympathetic or non-sympathetic they must have a unique voice. Attention should be paid to all. I think a strong well-written plot doesn't need to be confined to a handful of characters. Complex plots call for more parts.

  12. I'm sometimes very glad my characters are not me. To start with, I'm really cruel to my characters and I wouldn't want to go through the things I put them through. Secondly, they say some of the most horrible things. Sometimes I re-read dialogue I've written and cringe as I just think how nasty it sounds.
    Still, characters have to have their own voices. They have to be genuine and true to themselves and the situation.
    Great post and a great discussion.

  13. Can I tell you a secret (for all your devoted followers to see)? There's a small section of Faking It that was ghostwritten by my writing partner. Before she was my writing partner, she was doing a directed study w/ me in Stylistics at the time. The novel was still in draft form. Before she went into chiropractic, she was an art student and I needed help with the language that Devin uses when he writes the art review.

    So, I offered her the challenge as an assignment: write a review so that the style conforms to my own, but also to Devin's voice.

    I thought she did a great job, don't you? (I tweaked it a bit by the final draft, but still.)

    Oprah's gonna yell at me for this, isn't she. She's going to accuse me of not writing my own book.

  14. Cassandra; I know exactly what you mean. I'm horrified at some of the things my characters say. But...what can you do?

    Elisa; Thanks for sharing your secret. Let Oprah yell at you. On her show.

  15. Great lessons here. I will do the dialogue test and see if they are different characters.

    To Elisa, YOUR secret is safe with us. :)

  16. I just finished the rough draft for my second romance and I will definitely keep your advice in mind during my first round of edits in a few weeks. I try ti know my characters before I set out but I've never actually considered things such as word choice and sentence length.

  17. Thank you, Journaling Woman!


  18. I love characters and trying to get their voices right. It can take a long time to work out how each will be distinct. Once I get them right it feels like they take over and I just transcribe what they are telling me. Does that make sense?

  19. Good advice, as usual, Elspeth. I know at a glance which character is doing the talking, but will someone else?


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