Building Character Voice
Updated: Feb 13
One of my favorite elements of any story, whether it's one I’m reading or one I’m writing, is discovering a character’s voice. I don’t care if they’re high-falutin society stars or uncouth, foul-mouthed thieves- I love learning about who they are by what they say out loud and in their internal dialogue. Voice is that secret sauce that makes me understand a character and lets me occupy their mind during their adventures. It's what makes a character truly come to life.
What is Voice?
Walter Cummins, writer and professor, describes voice as “sentence rhythms and patterns, word choices, enunciations, syntax, and pauses… In addition to sound, the details that a writer chooses to note imply a distinct worldview. There’s also an attitude toward people and places, situations and events that emerges.”
Voice can be defined in two different ways: voice as an author, and each character’s individual voices. This article relates to the latter- the voices of characters. Exploring one’s voice as an author is an entirely different story!
In my opinion, I should be able to read a paragraph of internal monologue or a few lines of dialogue and know which character is narrating or speaking. If not, then there is more work to be done developing character voice.
Things to Consider When Developing A Character’s Voice
There are a myriad things to consider here, but they boil down to these three questions: What do the characters know? What do they pay attention to? What do they care about?
For the record, I believe this is regardless of whether or not they are a narrator (POV character) in your book. Here’s the thing: even if you gave me two people, twins born and raised in the same family, isolated out in the wilderness and trained with a certain purpose in mind (I claim this idea and you cannot turn this into the hottest YA dystopian novel!), you would have to answer those questions differently for each character. We all have those small nuances in our personalities and personal histories that lead to variations in our inner voices. It behooves us as authors to nail down a few ideas for each of those questions to inform our writing.
Going Deeper: Background
Experiences, good or bad, shape people. Think about what past experiences your characters might have had and how that would affect how they think and act and express their personality.
Most characters, like most people, don’t have deeply traumatic pasts to inform their presents. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t key moments that stick with them, or have impacted them on a more subconscious level.
Not all characters bear secrets or hidden pasts, but if your character does, how often is it on their mind, and how do they hide it? A character on the run from the assassin out to kill them is going to think about that pretty often, whereas someone who has a secret buried for years is going to mentally acknowledge that far less often.
For example, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (of recent Bridgerton fame, The Duke and I by Julia Quinn), had a poor relationship with his father. That hatred bleeds into his point of view in his biting responses to references to his late father and his inner monologue lambasting the man.
Another example is Celaena Sardothien from Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass. She carries so many layers of secrets, yet her narration is a realistic portrayal of an inner monologue not obsessing over those secrets while not pretending they don’t exist, either.
Develop your character’s basic demeanor to establish the tone of their inner dialogue. Are they more a glass half full or glass half empty kind of person? Do they overlook things going wrong, or mentally grumble about it? Are they energetic, constantly looking for new sources of entertainment and activity? Are they morose and sulky, easily irritated by people?
I’ve made no secret of my love of developing characters using personality tests and astrology. I find it helps me round out my characters in ways that my own Aquarius brain couldn’t generate independently. Little quirks of behavior, like how they cope with arguments with loved ones, unfair workplace behavior, or emergencies, are fun and occasionally really helpful insights into characters.
Another thing to consider is how any mental health challenges might affect them. Mental health challenges are not a personality trait, but they would be key in understanding the thought processes and actions of a character. I would suggest doing a lot of research from reputable sources and attempting to speak with someone who has whatever condition you’re considering for your character before attempting to write in such details.
A character’s culture will affect everything from their values to their clothes to their language. Taking a few moments to consider what the group of people your character belongs to believes in, and decide how much of that your character agrees with, will go a long way in establishing their voice and how they interact with the world.
One of my favorite examples of a profound use of culture as character development is from The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. (Side note, if you want a masterclass in intricate worldbuilding, read his books. Just. Wow.) Locke is a thief, who often invokes the unofficial thirteenth god, the Crooked Warden. Other characters, by contrast, refer to the twelve gods, and when Locke is masquerading as someone respectable, he often refers to whatever god is relevant to his character.
How a person speaks out loud is another consideration. If they are of a higher class or are well educated, they will likely use proper grammar. If they are taciturn and quiet, their verbal responses are likely brief. Swearing and exaggeration might indicate more energetic characters. Turns of phrase related to culture or religion can be fun ways of expressing their personality and voice, as with Locke’s Crooked Warden.
Profession and Role
Imagine you are a fire marshal, whose job it is to investigate buildings to ensure that all fire safety precautions are being followed. You and your friend, a professional chef, walk into a crowded restaurant. You’re likely to notice that the building is over capacity or the exits are blocked. Your chef friend is more likely to observe the scents in the air emanating from the kitchen, or how the people sitting at the tables are responding to their food.
What we spend our time and energy on shapes our thoughts.
What we’re required to care about in our work will likely bleed over into other aspects of our consciousness. People in books are no different. Additionally, our characters likely have a wealth of knowledge about a particular subject, and when that subject comes up, they will be reminded of that information, whether they mention it out loud or not.
For example, a dressmaker spends her time designing and fitting gowns, thus it would be natural for her to notice the fit and fabric of people’s clothing, and likely knows how much it costs, too, as in Loretta Chase’s The Dressmakers series.
Their role in their family and community, is likely equally relevant. If a character has spent their life mothering their children or taking on that role for their younger siblings, that role will shape what they notice and respond to. An parental sibling looks at a snowy hill and worries. A younger sibling looks at a snowy hill and imagines fun.
Give yourself time to explore each of your characters’ voices, whether or not they are your POV character. Try answering these questions for each character, or pretend you are the character in each scenario.
What would catch their eye if your character went into a crowded bazaar full of objects and people?
What is your character’s typical day like, from when they wake to when they sleep?
What words or phrases does your character use daily? What words or phrases would they never use?
Your character trips and falls down a set of stairs. What is their reaction?
What stresses out your character, and what are their stress behaviors? What makes them happy, and what do they act like when they feel happy?
Drop any ideas for further character development below! What are your first steps for dreaming up a new character? What authors really nail character voice?