Understanding Character Voice

So, I had intended to write a follow-up post to the last one on scene-setting by S.K., but instead I’ve decided to write about Character Voice.  It’s something that’s been on my mind lately, and I think it’s one of those essential vocabulary terms for all writers to understand.

If you sit in a room with a bunch of writers, chances are one of them will eventually start tossing around words like voice, tone and mood. For beginning writers, all these concepts can seem a little fuzzy, not to mention a little scary.  What exactly do they mean?  How do you know if you’re doing it right?  Don’t panic.  It’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.

Though writers often talk about voice, tone and mood in the same conversation, don’t mistake these concepts for synonyms.  Tone and mood have more to do with the storytelling itself, whereas voice is a matter of characterization.  We might talk about a book’s mood being dark, gothic, atmospheric, or it’s tone being bubbly, sarcastic, or ironic. To put it briefly, mood describe the overall feel of the story, while tone is how the author approaches the story.  But I’ll come back to the question of mood and tone in a future post.

Character voice, on the other hand, has to do with the personality of the character, shining through how they see, understand, and discuss the world.

Think of ten of your friends.  They’re probably a lively, diverse bunch.  Now, think about the greeting you get when you reach their voicemail.  Some of them might use the automated robot response: “The number you are trying to reach is not available”, or some such.  But for your friends with personalized messages, do they all have their own robot response saying, “The number you are trying to reach…”?  No.  Probably not.  In fact, their messages are probably quite a good reflection of your friends’ personalities.  One of my friends has a very standard, serious, no frills message.  One of them has a great message that starts, “Congratulations!  You have failed to reach [friend’s name].”  I smile every time I hear it.  Another one offers the psychologically damaging message: “Hello? [five seconds]  How are you? [five seconds]  Sorry you missed me!  Please leave a message.”  Gee, thanks for making me feel like an idiot.

Okay, that’s great.  So what?  What does that have to do with character voice?  Well, everything.  If we, as writers, give all of our characters dialogue that sounds identical — and identically robotic and bland — then we have failed to give our characters a unique voice.  Voice is the principal way readers can identify a character’s personality.  It’s how, if we’re reading an untagged bit of dialogue, we can identify who is speaking simply by the way it is said.  Consider this example:

Joe glanced up in surprise as Ms. Mary Rhodes entered the coffee shop.  A fleeting sense of panic seized him, nudging him to hide behind his newspaper. He forced himself to be calm.  Mary might be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, while he was just the electrician, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t exchange a polite greeting.  He got up and crossed nervously over to the smartly-dressed woman, who turned to him in surprise.



“How are you doing today?”

“I’m all right, thank you.  How are you?”

“Very well.  Are you here for a cappuccino?”

“No, actually I drink espresso.”

“Really!  I never would have imagined that you would be an espresso drinker.”

Okay.  Pop quiz.  Who started the conversation?  Who is the espresso drinker?  Honestly, I don’t even know.  Two computers might be talking to each other for as interesting as that exchange was.  Now, what if the dialogue ran like this?

“Hey…uh, hello!”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Good morning.”

“Nice day, huh?”

“It was.”

“Guess you’re here for a coffee, huh?  You drink them fancy cappadachinos or what you call them?”

“Actually, no.  I’m a bit of an espresso connoisseur myself.”

“No sh— I mean, never would have guessed that!  Hard core!”

All right.  So basically, we’ve had the same dialogue exchange here, and we still didn’t use any tags to mark the speakers.  But it should be fairly obvious who’s speaking.  We’ve already set up that Mary is the CEO of a highly successful corporation, and Joe is an electrician with low self-confidence. Now, unless we seriously wanted to shatter some reasonable expectations, we know that the nervous speaker who mispronounces the word cappuccino must be Joe, while the snobby, slightly catty speaker who uses words like connoisseur must be Mary.

That, in a nutshell, is what character voice is all about.

The concept becomes more interesting when we start talking about 1st person POV narrative, where character voice begins to usurp the place of author tone.  What 1st person POV does is put the reader directly inside the mind of the narrator, who is a character and not just an outside story-teller.  It’s basically me, as character, relating the world and the events of the plot as I see them, to you the reader.  Everyone has a unique personality (think about those voicemail greetings).  Some people are positive and outgoing.  Some are shy.  Some are gloomy.  The vocabulary and phrasing you use for the narrative must all reflect that personality in 1st POV.

For instance, if I have Joe, the gloomy, broken-down, pessimistic electrician as my narrator, would this bit of description feel authentic?

The sun sparkled off the morning street.  Chilly snatches of wind played in my hair, making my nose run and my eyes sting until I laughed at myself.  Everything shone with a fresh brightness.  The lampposts had been festooned with garlands and lights for the holidays, and children laughed as they slipped down the icy sidewalks like over-bundled penguins.

Yeahhh….not so much.  How about this?

The streets were still wet.  The sun tried to come out, once, but failed.  Feeble, pointless.  Nothing could warm the raw edge of the wind, cutting over me like a steel rasp.  My nose dripped.  I waited for it to freeze again around my nostrils, and try to suffocate me.  I almost wished it would.  Noise swelled around me until I thought I was drowning.  Car horns screaming at each other.  Children shrieking, in constant peril of cracking their heads on the icy sidewalks.  Chaos.  And to make it all worse, tacky plastic garlands trying to hide the ugliness of the city street, but failing.

Notice how this differs in several significant ways from the first example.  In the first, every sentence is grammatically correct.  The language is bright.  The metaphors are cheerful.  These don’t indicate a broken-down, gloomy character.  In the second example, however, the images are dreary.  The language is clipped.  Some of the sentences are fragments.  Instead of seeing children laughing and playing, he hears them shrieking and in danger of bodily harm.  He doesn’t see the garlands as a sign of cheer, but a failure to disguise the ugliness around him.  Notice the repetition of the word fail, and the imagery of suffocation, drowning, screaming, cutting.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as I mentioned, because my new novel, The Madness Project, is told from alternating 1st person POVs.  That is, one chapter will be told from Tarik’s point of view, and the next from Hayli’s.  It’s a tricky technique, because the narratives of each of them have to be absolutely unique.

One of my favorite books so far this year — the Scorpio Races — was written with this kind of POV.  It’s a gorgeous, atmospheric, haunting, vibrant story. It has only one major flaw, and that is that the narrative of the two characters, Puck and Sean, sounds almost identical.  If you don’t pay attention to the chapter headings, you might not be sure whose head you’re in — and that can be a dangerous situation for a reader.  (Ultimately, I thought the book was so delightful that I forgave the characters for sounding like clones, though I wish the distinction had been stronger.)  At any rate, I learned a lot from reading that book and noticing my own difficulties with the narrative.  It’s become a matter of great interest to me to make sure that Hayli and Tarik have absolutely unique ways of seeing and describing the world.

They are, of course, completely different characters.

Tarik is the Crown Prince of an early 20th century style monarchy.  He’s had the best education.  He’s rather reserved, but confident (without lapsing into arrogance).  He’s been raised to expect certain things of the world — he’s the prince, the servants are servants and are there to serve, etc.  It would be a complete anachronism for him to feel sorry for the servants, or guilty that they have to serve him.  It’s not that he’s a domineering tyrant who likes to lord it over people.  He’s just been brought up in a specific world-view.  Consequently, his dialogue is refined — not stilted, but well-bred.  In his narrative, he relates events eloquently, with proper grammar and a certain elegance.  I can’t have him making a big deal about having the footman waiting for him with an umbrella, because that’s simply what’s done.  In fact, I have to have the narration of that event be so bland and unremarkable that we think it’s simply what’s done.

Hayli, on the other hand, is a street rat.  She’s been raised in the slums among tramps and vagabonds since she was about six.  She’s tough, street-smart but poorly educated.  She has a great natural wonder about the world, and a small but precious bit of pride and self-consciousness that makes her want to be well-liked.  She knows she’s an outcast in society at large, but she treasures her situation in the Rivanic Cult and has an insatiable desire to please Derrin, her mentor.  So, of course her narrative can’t have the same level of refinement as Tarik’s.  She uses words incorrectly.  She uses slang and street talk.  Her narrative is a bit more clipped, a bit more vibrant, a bit more wide-eyed and sparkling than Tarik’s.  It’s also a bit coarser, especially her dialogue.

The goal, of course, is for a reader to flip open to any page of the book, and after reading a couple of lines, be able to say, “Oh, this is a Hayli chapter,” or “This is Tarik speaking,” and not have to hunt for a name dropped in dialogue for reference.

Given what I’ve just told you about these two characters, who do you imagine the narrator is in this little excerpt?

One of the new kids was on guard duty when I slunk back to the Hole, just like I’d hoped.  I’d seen him around before, of course, but he didn’t know me much.  We knew each other’s faces, and I sort of thought he might be a mage like me, but we’d never talked.  At least, he couldn’t possibly know me enough to know where I’d been.  Or, more to the point, what it meant that I was back home now, and all alone.

Compared to this:

Gram cocked an eyebrow at him, but Batar was too engrossed in observing the exact orange-cream hue of the soup to notice.  The man was an insufferable idiot, but half of Brinmark worshipped him as the final arbiter of all things cultural and refined in Cavnal.

He always looked like a fool, I thought.  Tonight he had his flame-red hair slicked flat onto his head, all but the little tufts over his ears that had been groomed to stand out in stiff wisps.  Intentionally-mussed, he had informed my mother on one occasion.  Because, after all, it was possible for one to look too perfect.

It’s a challenge, keeping up consistency in the narratives of two totally different personalities.  But it’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding writerly things I’ve worked on lately.  So don’t sell yourself short.  Take the time to really get to know your characters.  Imagine having a chat with them.  How do they talk?  What are their favorite phrases?  Do they have a go-to word whenever something pleases or impresses them?  What is their predominant personality type?  And then use those clues to make sure that the voice you give them is truly their own.  This is especially true for 1st person POV, where everything — dialogue and narrative — needs to reflect that personality.  Put yourself in their heads and see the world as they see it.  Your characters will thank you.  So will your readers.

In other news, did I mention that Prism is now available?  Check it out on Amazon and Smashwords!  ^_^

About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

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