By Lisa Poisso
Vocabulary and the way a character speaks are the outer layer of character voice—the icing on the cake. Instead of trying to build character voice from the outside in, get under the character’s skin by revealing how they experience and interpret the story world from the inside out.
Character voice bubbles up organically when every aspect of the story is seen through a character’s-eye view of priorities, perspectives, and agendas. It’s less like cobbling together a latticework of characters, setting, and events than it is establishing a running commentary on how the character views everything caught in that web.
“Running commentary” may sound like something suited for first-person or deep third point of view. In fact, continually inflecting the story with a character’s personal concerns is a fit for any point of view whose narrator is also a character. It’s a seamless way to write. The character voice—with all its attendant observations, judgments, opinions, prejudices, preferences, thoughts, and emotions—effectively becomes your framework for worldbuilding.
The idea of character voice often brings to mind a character’s favorite words and phrases—for example, whether a character calls something neat, cool, lit, or dope. That’s coming at character voice from the outside in. To build character voice from the inside out, start with what the character observes in the first place.
1. What Characters Notice
What you know is inside a room will almost certainly be different from what the viewpoint character notices. What gets noticed depends on who does the noticing. Everyone sees the world through the lens of their own mindset, a potent brew of knowledge, experience, motivations, goals, preferences, hopes, fears …
A musician notes different qualities in a concert hall than an interior designer. A six-year-old child beelines right past the collection of R&B vinyl to get to the puppy. The best friend sees a comfy, lived-in nest while the exhausted mom sees dirty socks and a pile of bills on the counter.
This is where knowing your characters’ histories comes in handy. What memories and emotions are associated with the people, places, and things they meet?
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2. What Characters Think About What They Notice
Once you’ve worked out what a character would notice in any particular scene, it’s time to express that observation using their unique frame of reference.
Frame of reference is everything. To a character who spent summers at Grandma’s, it’s not simply the blue couch in the parlor; it’s Grandma’s sacred slab of dusty blue granite. To a carefree bachelor, it’s not a twelve-year-old girl; it’s a whiny tween suffering through Nikes instead of Yeezys.
This personal frame of reference often overtakes more logical, objective methods of description. Only narrators immediately know such details as another character’s exact height or age. The viewpoint character must make a guess: a woman so short he’d need to fold in half to kiss the top of her head, a guy about Mark’s age but with less gray hair.
It would be hard to get too specific with these judgments. People are opinionated. They have beliefs, and hopes, and prejudices about virtually everything they encounter. Don’t be afraid to be judgmental; you’re only letting your character out of the corral.
3. What Characters Are Stewing About
Most people have some sort of agenda at any given moment. What’s on the calendar for today?
This dynamic is supercharged for story characters, who are actively struggling toward specific scene and story goals. Like any of us facing a potentially eventful day, characters mentally and emotionally home in on their goals. Are they on the right track? Is today the day they’ll succeed? Or will all the cards come tumbling down?
Even the smallest actions, such as what a character chooses for breakfast, can be influenced by their goals for the day. If today’s the big presentation, will they eat a carefully balanced meal, pound a half dozen donuts, skip food to avoid nervous heaves, or forget about breakfast entirely? The way your character approaches these details reveals what they think is important.
Filling in the Blanks
Dialogue and thought, including vocabulary and syntax, are the external clothing of character voice. What does the character’s speech reveal about their upbringing, education, and experience? Will readers notice favorite words, phrases, or sayings? This characteristic language creates a neat, recognizable package for readers.
Just don’t forget what’s on the inside, as well.
Peering through a character’s lens into the world is often simpler to carry out after the first draft. Once all the story things are on the page, there’s more room to figure out how the character would view them.
At that point, it’s time to add color. How could you describe every person, place, and thing in a way that reveals something about how the character views it? What do those elements evoke for the character? Dialogue, description, backstory and facts, setting—virtually every element of the writing can be shaded through this personal lens.
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