Voice – that elusive element of writing that can make or break a piece. Good voice authenticates the character, gives them a personality, an identity. It makes the text a character in itself. It carries your reader through your writing. If the character voice is clear and well-crafted, your reader will hear it as they read and they will become immersed in the world of the text.
Here are a few tips on how to write clear, consistent and creative voices that I’ve found useful.
1. Go with the flow.
I find most of my character voices come about naturally. As you begin writing, often the characters will form themselves in your mind. You can hear how they speak, their accents and rhythms and tones. Go with it. Listen to how they sound and let their voice flow out through your fingers. I know that’s a very abstract tip, but give it a try. Even if it’s not the voice you originally intended for that character, just let it happen. I find it’s better to let things develop naturally rather than limit yourself to a rigid pre-writing plan. Sometimes with this natural method the voice will magically translate from your mind to the page, other times it will completely miss the mark, but you can iron all this out later (see tip #9).
If you do hear the character’s voice then let it speak through you. But if you can’t, that’s fine, there are a few things you can do to craft it from scratch, which I’ll go over now. These are also general tips that will help even if you do find a natural voice.
People use different words. Their vocabularies depend upon a lot of different things: region, vocation, age, cultural identity, nationality, and the list goes on. It’s unlikely a sixty year old Eton-educated man would say ‘Wicked, bruv,’ except, perhaps, ironically. Think about the kind of vocabulary your character would have. If he’s an intellectual, he might use academic language frequently, or recite quotes; if she works on the docks, she might use vocational language and industrial metaphors. Where the first would say ‘Security, escort this man off the premises immediately,’ the second would say, ‘Haul his arse out of here.’ One example I particularly like is in Margaret Atwood’s novel Maddaddam, third book in the trilogy of the same name. The character Zeb says, ‘Once they got a hammerlock on power, they didn’t have to bother so much.’ ‘Hammerlock’ is kind of armlock, a submission move in wrestling. Zeb is familiar with martial arts, and so that aspect of his character comes through in the language he uses. Not only does Zeb have a clear, distinct voice, but this voice also characterises him. Use words and phrases your character would be familiar with.
So, you decide one of characters is a dockworker, as in the example above. How do dockworkers speak? Do your research. If you live near a dock, go mill about (try not to look suspicious) and listen out for specific words and the general rhythm, tone and cadence of their voices. Obviously, not all dockworkers speak the same, but you’ll pick up on certain ways of speaking that people have in common. If you don’t live near a dock, watch a video or doc(k)umentary and look out for the same things. One of my lecturers said that when she’s writing a character from a specific nation or region she’ll find audio clips of conversations of people from that region and listen to them for a while to get the feel for the voice. Accent, rhythm, tone and slang can then be plucked from the ‘real’ audio clips and planted on the page.
4. Phonetic spelling.
Once you have an accent in mind, you can use phonetic spelling to allow it to speak through your writing. For example, the black Mississippi preacher in Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury announces: ‘I sees de light en I sees de word, po sinner!’ Much of the dialogue in Faulkner’s novel is spelt phonetically drawing attention to cultural and historical ways of speaking. However, though phonetic spelling can be used to illustrate a character’s accent and pronunciation, it can sometimes be difficult for the reader. So I’d advise to use this technique carefully. If it doesn’t feel right, throw it out.
5. Particular phrases.
Some people have certain phrases that they like to repeat, like the crooked Chief of Police, John Noonan, in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest always saying, ‘Well, that certainly is fine.’ The repetition gets the phrase stuck in the reader’s mind and they associate it with that character. It creates consistency and helps the reader to attach a voice in their head to the words on the page. Another example would be Syrio Forel in A Game of Thrones always saying ‘Just so.’ Again, the reader attaches the phrase to the character and they begin to hear a distinct voice when that phrase is repeated. In the latter case, ‘Just so’ is not unique to Syrio Forel, it is a common phrase among the Braavosi – a city with its own culture – so in this example the phrase is not only used to define character voice but also to enrich the world of the text with a region-specific vernacular, which in turn helps to define other characters in relation to one another.
I recently revisited a chapter I wrote a while ago and came across a passage in which a character who is usually quiet, reserved and not great with words suddenly pipes up with an eloquent and poetic speech. Though I was happy with the writing, it was completely out of character. To craft a convincing voice, there has to be consistency. If a character is a blabbermouth, keep them blabbering; if they have a kind of brief and brutal poetry to the way they think and speak, maintain it throughout; if they struggle to say what they mean, make sure they don’t slip into a profound clarity of speech. In other words, keep in character. Give your characters different ways of speaking and try not to let all the voices bleed into one. If you find yourself writing something and thinking perhaps it sounds more like another character then either have the other character say it or rewrite it. Part of this will be the language they use, part will be how that character might react to an event or speech act, and part will be in the rhythm. For example, my aforementioned character usually speaks in short, terse bursts. Straight to the point. Simple sentences without undue ornamentation. Brevity, not levity. Whereas another character, say a poet-politician (?), might speak in long, meandering sentences, fluttering, like a butterfly swaying and dipping drunkenly through the air, now here, now there, frivolously floating in over-description and flittering its coloured wings, from clause to clause, keeping the reader guessing as to where they will finally land.
7. Voice not adverbs.
Allow the voice to come through in the speech itself. Adverbs should be avoided wherever possible (though sometimes they are necessary). Over-description can often break the binding spell of reading by clouding the connection between reader and text with too many words (like the poet-politician’s excessive and frankly painful rambling). If a character’s tone can’t be guessed through what they’re actually saying, maybe it needs rewriting.
8. Read aloud.
You should read back all your writing aloud, it helps you to hear the rhythm. You can then tidy up the clunky bits of prose that you will most probably find. Reading aloud is also very important for voice, whether it’s speech or narrative voice. Sometimes, especially when you’ve been writing for a while, it’s hard to get that connection with the words that allows you to see and hear and taste whatever’s happening in the world of the text. You look at the page and you just see words. Reading aloud helps turn those words back into sensations. So go somewhere you feel comfortable where you can read aloud confidently and get into character. I find it helps to approach it as an actor playing a role: get into your character’s head and try to talk in the accent that you imagine them speaking in. You’ll probably find yourself ad-libbing a little, as certain words and phrases may come more naturally to that character. This is good, go with it. Also, writing and speaking are different acts, so sometimes written speech can feel unnatural. By reading it aloud you can hear whether it sounds natural or not, and those ad-libbed bits will come across as more natural speech.
Equally as important as the initial writing, rewriting is where you iron everything out. In terms of voice, after a little break all those inconsistencies will become blaringly obvious and you can begin to pick them out and add bits in and unite your character’s voice. As I wrote in point 1: if you follow the natural voice, sometimes that voice will slip. The rewrite is where you can go back, often with a much stronger sense of character voice as you’re more familiar with your character, and fix it all up to be clear and consistent.
I hope these tips have helped you or that you’ve found this post interesting. I find voice to be a very difficult thing to write right, and these are tips and tricks that I’ve heard or read from tutors, lecturers and fellow writers.
If you’ve got anything to add, any tips or techniques that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them so please comment below and impart some wisdom on me!
Response to Daily Prompt: Voice