The purpose of voice is to stand out, like this flower against the fence. Photo by Kate Ota in Siegen, Germany 2013
One of the things agents always talk about on twitter or their websites is voice. They want it! Please send it! And you may be left thinking what is voice? How do you develop that in your writing? I have an explanation and tips for how to develop it yourself.
What is Voice?
Voice is, at its core, unique and specific word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure. These elements play together to create a narrative style that is unlike what’s been done before, or is at least interesting to read.
For example, pick up a random textbook. The goal of that book is not to entertain, it’s to clearly convey information. Therefore, the word choice is going to be generic, the sentence structures are likely going to be similar, and anyone in the entire world could have written it. Which is the point. A kid is reading that textbook and you don’t want them distracted by the writer’s interesting turn of phrase.
Now look at, for example, The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson novel by Rick Riordan. It’s written from the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy. That book oozes Percy’s voice. Interesting word choices, variable sentence structures, unique similes. That writing style won’t be found just anywhere, and that’s the point.
Voice can be the voice of a character, the voice through the book as a whole (if there's more than one point of view), or the voice of an author across their works. I believe developing your voice as an author starts with the voices of your characters, which together will be the voice through the book. Below, I focus on tips for how to develop the voice of a character.
Develop Your Voice
Tip #1: Monologue as Your Character
The best way I’ve found to fall into my character’s voices is to talk aloud as if I was them. If you’re feeling shy about your at-home audience, you can do this in the shower or write it down as it flows out of you. Whatever you do, don’t over think it. This monologue is not going in your project. It’s an exercise to help you explore. Take what you know about the character’s personality and extrapolate. The words they use will match their mood and education level, the sentence length will match their energy level, the punctuation will match their breath. Imagine how they’d discuss what they love, what they hate, where they live, and the people around them.
Do this exercise as long as you’d like until you get a sense for how this character speaks. Then try writing narration and dialogue from them. Does that voice sound unique? It doesn’t need to be other-worldly or wild, it just needs to sound like it’s coming from an interesting person. Model it after an interesting person’s speech pattern, if that helps you. If you think any random character in your book would sound like the voice you just played with, try again.
Tip #2: Decide which rules to break
Voice often manifests best when the speaker breaks a few classic writing rules. The basic rules will get you to textbook or essay level writing, but to be more than a bone-dry info-dump, you need to play a little. One of my favorite rules to break is to use fragments. Sparingly in narration and frequently in dialogue. That was a fragment, by the way. Did you notice it had a little more humanity in it than a full sentence? Sounded more natural, more conversational. Hence why I use them more in dialogue than narration.
Some characters will use a little more purple-prose in their word choice than others. For example, a professional artist will probably have more flowery word choice than a lawyer, who might be more direct. Some characters may even use more adverbs, run on sentences, or make grammatical mistakes (that last one is for dialogue only and should really be used sparingly, unless you want your readers to think you are the one making the mistakes.) It’s important to know the rules before you play fast and loose with them, and be sure you’re doing so on purpose.
Tip #3: Once You Have It, Write It Down
After discovering how your character monologues and which rules they tend to break, write down their specific quirks. This will help you remain consistent through your project. I have character consistency sheets that can help point you in the general direction of helpful things to write down. This can be before you’ve written your project or after you’ve finished your first draft, whichever you find most useful.
Compare voices you’ve developed for each of your narrators, or for the speaking voices of various characters. If they were all in a scene together and all speaking, could you differentiate their dialogue through their voices alone? Ideally, yes!
Did any of these tips help you develop the voice of your narrator or other characters? Do you have a favorite method for finding the voice of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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