Thursday, March 17

Is That You? Developing Voices for Different POVs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Voice is important in a novel, and there’s more than just your author’s voice. Characters have voices too, and making those voices distinct in multiple POV stories helps readers keep track of who’s who. It’s also a good way to help you develop those characters into solid personalities. Knowing what they sound like can help determine who they are (and vice versa). 

The Sound of…Someone 


Crafting character voices for a multiple POV story isn’t that different from creating the voice for a single POV tale. Everyone has their own speech patterns, favorite turns of phrase, physical reactions or gestures while speaking. But what really shows off a character's voice is their internalization.

(More on how to write non-POV voices characters here)

Internal Voice 


How a character thinks and what they notice, from their internal thoughts to the narrative itself, is where a character's voice thrives. The always-distracted scatterbrain is going to see the world differently from the detail-oriented observer, and their voices are going to reflect that.
Kate ran down the front steps, purse jangling at her hip, scarf tangling in the purse. Crap, my keys. On the table, of course, next to that thing she had to do later for that guy in accounting. Or was it marketing? She could never remember—wait, why is that woman staring at me? Is she the new neighbor in 1B? She smiled at the old woman glaring at her from the sidewalk, then dashed back to the apartment.

Katie ran down the front steps, purse thumping at her hip, scarf tucked around her neck. Who is that? An old woman lurked by the bushes at the edge of the stairs. She didn’t seem lost, so she probably wasn’t someone’s senile grandmother who got past the home nurse. It didn’t appear she was out for a walk, either, since she wasn’t moving. She was just staring. At her. Perhaps she’s the new neighbor in 1B. She smiled at the old woman, then hurried past with a quick “good morning” nod, just in case.
Same basic scene--a woman leaves her apartment, sees a strange woman on the sidewalk in front of her building. But they each notice (or not) particular things and their internal thoughts help show their personalities. It’s clear that Kate and Katie are very different people. Just for fun, let’s look a little closer at exactly where the voice is and how it was accomplished.

Kate ran down the front steps, purse jangling at her hip, scarf tangling in the purse. Crap, my keys. On the table, of course, next to that thing she had to do later for that guy in accounting. Or was it marketing? She could never remember—wait, why is that woman staring at me? Is that the new neighbor in 1B? She smiled at the old woman glaring at her from the sidewalk, then dashed back to the apartment.

Blue: The author’s voice. I’m going to write the way I write no matter what characters I’m writing, and that will be most evident in the basic narrative. But when I chose what details to use, I picked ones that complemented the scatterbrained natured of this character. I used words to help reinforce this: jangling and tangling, smiled paired with glared, dashing back.

Green: Kate’s speaking voice. This is how she talks. Since this is internal dialog, it’ll sound just like her external dialog would be. I used words that implied interruption: Crap, wait, is that?

Red: Kate’s internal voice. The “voice” of the POV. It’s the text that covers what’s going on, what Kate sees, how she feels about it, but it’s all in her POV, not the author’s. It’ll be similar to her speaking voice, but it won’t have that immediate present tense spoken feel. It’s internalization. The sentence structure is choppy, with one thought blending into the next to show her scatterbrain nature.

Look at the difference in Katie’s voice:

Katie ran down the front steps, purse thumping at her hip, scarf tucked around her neck. Who is that? An old woman lurked by the bushes at the edge of the stairs. She didn’t seem lost, so she probably wasn’t someone’s senile grandmother who got past the home nurse. It didn’t appear she was out for a walk, either, since she wasn’t moving. She was just staring. At her. Perhaps she’s the new neighbor in 1B. She smiled at the old woman, then hurried past with a quick “good morning” nod, just in case.

Blue: The author’s voice. Very similar, but I used thumping and tucked this time, because Katie isn’t a girl to leave the house with her scarf and purse askew. She’ll have her things in order. Same with her decision to smile and nod, just to be safe. Deliberate actions and words to show her deliberate nature.

Green: Katie’s speaking voice. Katie asks a question (who is that) and then proceeds to try and figure out the answer, ending with her assumption (the new neighbor). You can imagine that when she talks to people, it’s with purpose, and she probably doesn’t have a lot of frivolous conversations.

Red: Katie’s internal voice. This reinforces her deliberate nature. She’s trying to figure out who this woman is and why she’s there. She notes details (old woman, bushes) and gauges the most likely reasons for her being there (wandering grandma, out for a walk) before settling on her final choice (new neighbor), Even the sentence structure is more deliberate. More complete sentences, proper grammar (mostly), complete thoughts.

(More on how to write characters who don't sound like you here)

Creating Your Own Voices 


When you create your characters' voices, think about the types of people they are. POV is critical in a multiple POV story, because those different perspectives are what allow you to show different sides of the tale. If every character saw things the same way, you’d have no need to use different POVs. Things to think about:
  • How much do they notice about the world around them?
  • What are the kinds of things they’d notice?
  • What do they think about?
  • What types of words best fit or exemplify their personalities?
  • What type of sentence structure best fits them?
  • What is their dialog like?
  • How can you capture that same dialog feel in their internalization?
Some elements of who you are as a writer will naturally seep in (which is good, as your own voice is important), but each of your characters will have different personalities and see the world in different ways. Just like you use the right verb and the right noun to craft a well-written sentence, use the right worlds and phrasing to craft a well-developed character voice.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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18 comments:

  1. Thanks. A really excellent tutorial on creating different voices. One criticism I had on my first novel was that the voices of some of the character's sounded the same. It took a lot of hard work to change them.
    Judy (South Africa)

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  2. George R.R. Martin is really good at this is his A Song of Ice and Fire series. The whole thing is written in a third person omniscient point of view, with a far narrative distance, but each chapter still has a different POV character, so to speak. It's very subtle, the differences between one voice and another, but it's there.

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  3. Hi Janice,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my question. You really are a phenomenal teacher. As often happens with your posts, I started from a place of half-formed and tangled thoughts, and am now smiling and thinking, "Oh but of course!" It really is like the sun coming out! Thank you.

    Also, I wanted to say congratulations on being nominated for the Waterstones prize. I live in the UK, and it is a really big deal over here. All the shortlisted books get a lot of attention from the store with regards to how they are displayed and the extra information about them. Well done, and really well deserved!

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  4. I swear, your posts come at EXACTLY the right time! I've been pondering this the last day or so as I head jump between my two main characters. My Beta hinted that they sounded alike. I'm trying to figure out how to make them different! Thanks!

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  5. I like how you separated the author voice from the character's internal voice. I often only write in the character's internal voice, though, which I think creates some narrative dilemmas for me. Great post!

    Sara
    http://smreine.com/

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  6. I swear, you are like my personal muse. Whatever I need to hear, you say. Thanks for the great posts!

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  7. Probably the best example of distinguishing character voice from author voice that I've seen. Great!

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  8. Great post. The examples were great. Can you do a post sometime on how to show the voice of non POV characters? I struggle with this.

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  9. Judy: Sometimes it's hard to get them to sound differently. Worth all that work though :)

    Matthew: I've heard good things about that series but oddly enough I haven't read it yet. I really need to pick that up.

    Anon: Most welcome, thanks for the suggestion. I'm glad it clicked for you ;) And thanks re: Waterstone. I was so honored to be on the shortlist with such amazing books.

    Roberta: Yay! Hopefully it'll be easier now to separate them.

    Sara: Thanks! I'd think being able to write in their internal voice would be a benefit. Though I guess it would have some limits occasionally you'd need to work around.

    Story Weaver: Love being a muse :)

    Lisa: Aw, thanks!

    Natalie: Great idea! I'll put that on the list for next week.

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  10. This can get tricky sometimes. I have five main characters, but usually use two of them to give view points. However, some of them think alike, which gives me headaches.

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  11. Wow, this is the most helpful article on Character Voice I've read. Thank you! Like Roberta Walker said, this came at the exact right time for me. I have 3 POV characters in my story and am working on giving them each more distinct voice. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I am sharing this link on my blog for sure!

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  12. This is the post that made POV become obvious to me. A lot of my writing is full of "he thought, she thought" but I can just express those thoughts in the POV internal voice!

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  13. My writing is heavily peppered with these kind of voice shifts. It's great to have an extra guide to using them effectively.

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  14. Misha: Ooo that would be rough. I spent a lot of time in Darkfall with five characters in every scene, and it's hard to juggle that many.

    Michelle: Aw, thanks so much! I'm glad it helped.

    Greg: You just made my day! That's the whole reason I write this blog :)

    Paul: It's easy to fall into the "they all sound the same" trap, so it's a good reminder no matter what stage of your writing you're at.

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  15. Thank you for this clarifying post. It's also nice to see that I am not alone in my struggle with voice. Another illuminating post. Thanks!

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  16. Franb: Most welcome, and you're not. I don't think any writer is alone in any struggle. We all go through the same basic journey. Details might change, but the hard stuff is still the hard stuff.

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  17. Wow, quite advice, I enjoyed reading this, the only thing that I assumed, - is that 'Kate' would be the more serious protagonist (i.e the latter example). 'Katie', the name to me has connotations of someone a little more laid back. Maybe thats just me though.

    Thank you for such a valuable post, its really apt right now, I am editing and am looking to tighten the 'voice' of my main MC.

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  18. Talei: I actually did that on purpose to defy conventions (grin). But if I were to write this for real, I would switch them for those very reasons. Nice catch!

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