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?
“Oh.” Pause. “Good morning.”
“Nice day, huh?”
“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?