Please welcome Katrina Kittle to Writer Unboxed as a regular contributor. Katrina is the author of four novels for adults—Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals— and one novel for tweens, Reasons to Be Happy. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and is an experienced teacher of creative writing as well as a manuscript consultant. You can learn more about Katrina in her bio box at the end of this post.
No matter if you’re writing in first person or third, it’s vital for our characters to have distinctive voices. Your characters should sound like individual people. I know that in my own first drafts, my characters all end up sounding like each other, which essentially means they sound like me.
Let’s talk about what creates a voice, then look at published samples of distinctive voices, then, finally, go through some simple exercises that will help us create these individual voices in our own stories.
What Creates a Voice?
Vocabulary is the most obvious ingredient, as are expressions, idioms, and favorite curse words. Voice is also shaped by the character’s gender, age, education, occupation, geography (Where do they live? What country? Urban or rural?), time period, class, attitude, vocal patterns, their use of figurative language, and essentially every single thing they’ve ever experienced in their life! I’m not kidding—everything that makes up your character’s real life informs the way she sees the world, and therefore informs the way she speaks.
As you can see, voice, then, is deeply connected to characterization. It’s so difficult to isolate one aspect of our craft from the others because they’re all so braided together. Clear voice is aided by knowing your character inside and out.
I know for me, it helps to see concrete examples, rather than talking about it in the abstract. In the following short excerpts, note how unique each voice is from the others. You would never mistake any of these characters for each other. Oh, and I want to point out that I adored all three of these novels and encourage you to read them!
The first is from Things We Didn’t Say by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow, 2011):
Stupid Casey and her stupid questions. I hate how all these kids are making my drama into theirs to get attention. Like, if he totally disappeared for real, by next week they’d be on to the next thing, like that kid whose brother died of cancer and everyone was acting like their own brother died and then within a week it was all, whatever.”
In Riggle’s passage, the character is clearly young, a teenager—and we get that not only from what she says, but from how she says it. Her use of “all these” and “like” and “whatever” plant us clearly in contemporary times, and we get loads of attitude from her forthright “Stupid Casey and her stupid questions.”
Contrast that character with our speaker from Nayana Currimbhoy’s novel, Miss Timmons’ School for Girls (HarperCollins, 2011):
I, I am the night. I prefer people to see me first from behind. My hair is rain. It is thick and black and long, and it swings on my hips like music. My hair is my own private beat as I walk to school, to college, to family dinners, as I walk behind my mother, carrying her vegetables and fish.”
This speaker is also young—she references college and her mother—but is far more sophisticated than Riggle’s speaker. Her use of metaphors “I am the night,” “My hair is rain,” and “My hair is my own private beat” reveals her to be more poetic, and there is something far more deep and mysterious to her than the surface, in-your-face attitude of Riggle’s character. Neither character is “better” than the other—they are both perfect examples of powerful voice.
Our final sample is from The Doctor and the Divaby Adrienne McDonnell (Viking, 2010):
We are afraid that she has grown desperate. My sister’s husband has become obsessed. He has dragged her to physician after physician, put her through every procedure and humiliation so that she can have a child. He won’t relent.”
We can tell we’re “hearing” a more mature character here. There’s an even greater sophistication, even a formality, in the vocabulary. Much of the word choice probably clued you in that this is not a contemporary story. The choice of “grown desperate,” of “physician” over the more casual “doctor,” and the choices of “procedure,” “humiliation,” and “relent” speak to a level of propriety and etiquette not present in the other two excerpts. Instead of “We are afraid she had grown desperate” (note the choice not to use a contraction), Riggle’s character might have said, “We’re, like, all waiting for her major meltdown any second.”
Pay Attention to Figurative Language
One of the most useful tips in finessing your own character voices is to pay careful attention to your character’s use of figurative language. We are most individual when we make comparisons, but the figurative language has to fit your character’s life experience. I was once working with eighth-grade writer who, in her story set in ancient Egypt, used the phrase “cold as ice.” Not only was that a cliché, but I reminded her there was no ice in ancient Egypt. She went back and revised the line to “cold as the deepest waters of the Nile.”
Go through your own work and look for similes and metaphors. Highlight them and ask yourself if they are truly from your character’s life experience or from your own. Can you revise them to be truer to your character’s frame of reference?
The Ballerina & the Surgeon
Here’s an exercise that can help you do that, as well as helping you to incorporate your character’s occupation. Imagine that two people—a ballerina and a surgeon—are looking out over a wide open field watching storm clouds gather. Write a sentence—just one sentence—for each of them, as they describe the impending storm to a third character who was not present.
A sample sentence might be: “The lightning sliced through the darkness like a scalpel and the clouds pulsed across the black sky.” We know the surgeon wrote that, right? The ballerina might say, “Lightning leapt across the sky above us in a grand jete, in perfect time with the timpani beat of the thunder.”
Okay, it seems so obvious, right? But we often fail to do it with our own characters. And the reminder is that the surgeon is not likely to say “the clouds pirouetted across the sky,” but if she does, then that is something very distinctive about this character and speaks to her frame of reference.
So pay attention to your character’s occupation and the specific tools and jargon that come with it. Make use of that, particularly when the character is using figurative language.
Go to the Source
Another useful tool is to have people as similar to your character as possible read passages and offer feedback. One of my point of view characters in The Kindness of Strangers is a 17-year-old boy who plays hockey. I asked three young men I had taught in middle school who were currently high school seniors, all three hockey players and excellent writers, to read Nate’s chapters. Of course, they helped me get my hockey images right, but all three also circled the word “blouse” in one passage where Nate describes his girlfriend’s clothing. They all pointed out that they would simply say “shirt.” A nitpicky detail, sure, but it matters, and made Nate’s voice more authentic.
Not only are we most individual when we’re making comparisons, we’re pretty darn individual when we’re angry, so let your character rant about a pet peeve, or, say, some terrible customer service or being stuck in traffic. These monologues don’t need to end up in your work in progress, but they will help you capture voice and that effect will certainly end up in your work. Be sure to read these monologues aloud—that can help you nail a voice faster than anything…and also alerts you to anything that sounds “false.”
All good vibes to you as you go about creating characters who make readers say, “I’d know that voice anywhere.”
Have some tips you’d like to share about creating Voice? The floor is yours.