Originally posted on Gliterary Girl.
Do all people sound the same?
Do all people sound the same?
That’s a stupid question, right? Of course they don’t. In real life everyone is different, everyone has their little nuances, ways of speaking, and unique mannerisms. That’s what makes life interesting and fun. If everyone sounded the same, we’d all die of boredom. There are funny people, serious people, angry people, kind people, and every combination of those qualities and a million other qualities.
Well, the same goes for books, and if you haven’t already guessed what topic I'm writing about today, it’s voice. If you’re like me and are obsessed with the myriad talent competitions that are out there, the first thing you might think of is The Voice, an entertaining singing competition with talent coaches Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Ceelo Green, Christina Aguilera, and Blake Shelton. Although that’s not the “voice” I’m here to talk about, it’s actually a good example. Each of the four coaches on The Voice has a very different voice. (And I don’t mean that Blake’s voice is deeper than Christina’s!) Blake’s the comedian, constantly cracking jokes. Adam’s more serious, although he’s sort of Blake’s witty counterpunch. Christina is all business, ruthless when it comes to winning over the hearts’ of the contestants she wants on her team. Ceelo is the poetic low-key coach. They’re all VERY different.
That’s exactly the way characters in books should be. Easy, right? NOOOOOOO! Differentiating your characters’ voices is EXCEPTIONALLY HARD. If it was easy, everyone would be a bestseller, as voice is one of a handful of challenges that an author has to master in order to write a good book.
So how have I done as a writer when it comes to voice? Let’s just say, I’m working hard at it and improving with every book. Have I mastered it? Not by a longshot, but I won’t give up until I do. Many critics of my earlier works, the Evolution Trilogy, said some of the characters sounded too similar, that they didn’t have their own personalities. That’s a failure on my part. Even my most popular book, The Moon Dwellers, has received mixed reviews in terms of voice. Some reviewers think my two main characters, Adele and Tristan, are as different as night and day. Others think they’re too similar. I knew I still had work to do. It wasn’t until my 7th YA book that I got it right. Siena from Fire Country is a strong voice, and regardless of whether the reviewer liked the book or not, they all agreed on that. So yes, even an author of 14 books has to work hard to get character voice right!
You might be asking yourself, “How do I know if I’ve done a good job on character voice?” I’ve read a number of books and articles on the subject, and they all agree that dialogue is exceptionally important. A good test is whether you can tell which quotes are from which characters when you remove the dialogue tags. Do the words they’re speaking ring true for that particular character? If not, you have to change them. Is a character with a hot temper being far too easy going? Is a flamboyant character being boring and uninteresting? Is your hero acting anything but brave? If so, you’ve got a problem.
After the dialogue, you have to tackle the inner thoughts of each character for which you have a point of view for. Are each character’s thoughts true to their voice? Do they sound too much like each other, or are they unique? A feisty character’s thoughts should match her dialogue and actions. She should be feisty inside and out. Obviously, there are exceptions, when a character is undergoing inner turmoil and trying to hide it on the outside, but for the most part these things should match.
A little trick I’ve learned is to read my books out loud during the revision stage. Use different voices for the characters, exactly the way you envision them to sound. Do the words match the voice and personality you’re trying to convey? If not, change them.
Another trick if you’re writing from multiple points of view is to write from only one point of view per day, rather than jumping around. If you jump from viewpoint to viewpoint, there’s a greater chance that your mind will still be stuck in another character’s head when you’re meant to be writing from your new character’s head. I might write three chapters from one character’s point of view on Monday, and then do three chapters from another character’s point of view on Tuesday. If the story is alternating chapters, I’ll then go back and slot the chapters accordingly.
A final trick I use is to list out the personality traits I want each of my main characters and key supporting characters to have. When I’m writing each character, I keep these traits in the back of my mind, or refer to my list from time to time. If those personality traits aren’t coming through, then I need to add dialogue or inner thoughts to fix it. If different personality traits are coming through (that aren’t on my lists), I need to remove those lines.
If I haven’t belabored the point enough, think of writing like acting. The best actors and actresses appear as characters in different movies and become completely different people. As a writer, you have to do the same thing, except all within THE SAME MOVIE. That’s why it’s so hard. Get in your characters’ heads and become them while you’re writing about them. Tell their stories the way they want you to tell them. Practice, practice, practice!
I hope this helps! Writers are all in this together, and we’re all learning and growing and trying to become the best writers we can be. I highly advise reading other books (by authors far more talented than me) on writing, which include commentary and advice on mastering character voice. Some books I’d recommend are: On Writing, by Stephen King, and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.