Working With Character Voice
Characters are an important element in any story. They have to be the perfect fit; the right personality and the right name etc., so that for the readers, the characters feel like real people. Every one of them is different, yet their stories and experiences are similar to our own.
One thing that helps a story stand out isn’t just authorial voice – it’s character voice. Your characters are individuals with their own personalities, traits and flaws. They are their own people.
They are not you. And they shouldn’t be anything like you.
That’s where a lot of authors fall down. When they create their main characters, they often create them with themselves in mind, and too much of the writer’s personality creeps into their characters. That’s because it’s easier to write about us rather than go to all that trouble of characterising.
While it’s not a bad thing to have some little snippets of our own personalities in our characters, remember that your protagonist isn’t you. The characters that you create are and should be as individual as real people, with their own likes and dislikes (rather than yours), and their own personal experiences (rather than yours). Not only that, they shouldn’t sound like or look anything like you either.
Well defined characters that bring a story to life tend to be the complete opposite to the author. It’s refreshing to see more male authors are choosing to write female protagonists, while female authors write male protagonists. Some authors choose characters that are much younger than they are, or characters much older.
A character’s voice develops because of their experiences and situations - the kind that has bought them to the moment the story opens. What they have seen and done has shaped who they are, which will have a bearing on the way they interact with other characters. So what they have to say is important, but what they do say should be their own words, not yours.
That’s why it’s important you characterise and develop your characters before you begin writing. You won’t be able to create their character voice without it. That’s because you have to know what their backgrounds are, what their life experiences are, what lifestyles they lead, how they act and react with people and situations, what personalities they have and so on. You must know all this before you write even one word of your story.
Creating characters is one thing; bringing them to life is another. You must know what motivates your characters and what situations have brought them to the moment that you begin your first chapter. If you’ve spent the time creating your characters and everything about them, you’ll have an advantage because you will know more about them as you start the story. You won’t have any problem developing them as you write, and with each chapter you’ll come to know them more intimately. They will speak to you, rather than the other way around. Their thoughts and actions will be theirs. You’ll begin to understand how and why they behave, and soon enough, character voices will emerge – they will speak in a certain way, with a certain inflection and tone and have their own foibles and flaws and ways of communicating.
The trick here is to let them develop. Don’t let any of your own personality creep into theirs at any stage. It’s their story, remember. If done properly, by the end of the story, they will seem as real as any other person.
Character voice should develop and grow stronger with each chapter. Sometimes it’s not always noticeable, so don’t worry too much if you don’t see it in your first draft. Often it’s when we read the story through that we notice that character’s voice isn’t strong enough, or perhaps too much of you is still present.
It’s when we work through the second, third or fourth drafts that something really magical happens. We stop hearing our authorial voice and instead we hear their voices; what they say, how they say it, how they act and react, what their thoughts are and how they journey through their story.
It’s no longer the writer’s voice. It’s the character’s voice. Because it’s all about them.