For writers of fiction, character voice is often one of the primary things we concentrate on, as it is a key way to convey information about that character. Character voice – like overall voice – needs to be consistent and authentic. This is fairly basic, and comes naturally for most fiction writers, but definitely be aware of character voice as you are starting out and even more so when you head to revision.
Early in the process, character voice can be tricky. Characters can end up sounding similar to one another or a single character voice can get inconsistent. This is especially a trap when you’re starting a new book or story from scratch without an outline, or if you’re juggling a large cast of characters. When characters are in their infancy, their voices can have a tendency wander. Maybe a character starts out wishy-washy and indecisive, but in the next scene, they’re ordering someone else’s minions to assault the Queen’s castle. For a first draft, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the character doesn’t coalesce by the end of the first act of the book, then it might be time to rethink the character or the situation you put them in before continuing.
Once that first draft is in the books, you’ll still have to go back and check consistency of each character and their voice. If a henchman that appears early on in a minor ‘yes, sir’ kind of role later returns spouting techno-babble, you may need to reconcile that, by going back and putting something in the earlier scene that prepares the reader. Or it could be a plot point: perhaps he’s been infected by your book’s techno-babble virus, in which case we can just be sad that he will eventually die of hunger and dehydration due to his inability to shut up about the latest warp drive model and complex encryption algorithms. Or maybe we shouldn’t be sad. After all, he could have simply washed his hands before returning to his henchman duties.
But I digress.
Okay. So how can you get a consistent character voice?
First, before you get deep into the narrative, make sure that you understand your characters as best you can. What are their histories and dispositions? What are their goals? Based on these factors – as well as the plot/conflict that you’re about to throw at them – you can create compelling and consistent character voices. Do some pre-writing on each character. Put them in a scene (one that also provides you with a chance to fill out backstory) that won’t appear in the book. This way, you can give the character a test run.
Next, think carefully about the actual ‘voice’ of the characters, the dialogue. As writers (and editors), we have to be actors. We have to be able to imagine character situations, reactions, and dialogue as realistically as possible. Talk to yourself. Run dialogue out loud with yourself or with a friend. Make sure that it rolls smoothly and naturally, and that it works with the situation that you’ve put your characters in. And make sure you don’t fall into the trap of over-stylization unless you’re working in a situation where it makes sense to do so: historical novels, epic poetry, fantasy cultures, alien encyclopedias, etc.
In addition to character voices, fiction writers often have a need for other ‘in-world’ voices. Sometimes you need to be able to write a fictional newspaper article or encyclopedia entry. Or a weather report. Or a technical training manual. All of these need to sound authentic or as deft a parody as you can weave (if that’s your goal). It’s not necessarily hard, but you have to absorb the styles and execute them properly in your narrative.
Whatever aspect of voice in fiction you’re tackling, awareness, commitment, authenticity are the keys.
Coming Soon: Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction