Tuesday, March 07, 2023

How to Find Your Character's Voice

By Janice Hardy

Finding the right voice for a character can be tough, especially if you’re not sure who that character is yet.

Although a lot of people talk about author voice in fiction, character voice is just as important. It’s also harder, because you only one author voice (usually), but you need multiple character voices in every book you write.

That means knowing the personalities, hopes and dreams, fears and worries, of multiple people, as well as knowing what they’d say or think in any given situation. That’s a lot to figure out.

Luckily, the more you know about a character, the easier it will be to write them. And not just them, the entire novel, too.

Start by asking a few questions:

1. What’s their personality like?

If you haven’t done a lot of character development, you might spend some time thinking about who this character is and what they’re like. You don’t need to know extensive backstory or a lot of personal details, but you should know the type of person this character is. Someone who’s shy and snarky will have a different voice from someone who’s brave and judgmental.

Try choosing three words to describe this character’s personality. Try to pick a word that describes:

  • How they appear to the world: This is how they sound to others.

  • How they view themselves: This is how they sound internally.

  • How they want to appear: This is how they’d sound if they were brave enough to say what they really think (or not say if they’re too open about their opinions or feelings).

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Develop Character Voices)

2. How do you want the character to sound?

This will go hand in hand with the overall tone of the book. If the novel is funny, odds are the protagonist is going to be funny as well. Their internal voice will reflect the type of humor they enjoy and employ. If the novel’s tone is dark and brooding, the narrator will probably see the darker side of things and contemplate their surroundings and situations in a more serious manner. Consider:

  • How the novel’s tone can be reflected or implied by the words and phrases used by the narrator.

  • How the narrator’s view of the world can be the lens the reader sees this world through.

  • The types of thoughts or observations would best support the tone of the novel.

(Here’s more with How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes)

3. Is their inner voice different from their spoken voice?

Not every character will hide who they really are, but if they’re the type of person who doesn’t want others to see the real them, their interior voice will reflect the person they’re hiding.

(Here’s more with How Does Your Character Answer Questions?)

4. What do they think about?

Look to your goals, internal conflict, and character arc for options here. Their motivations will likely be on their mind, as well as the things they worry about. For example, if they’re caught up in a fight, their goal for how they want that fight to end could be on their mind. If they’re worried, what might go wrong would probably be flashing through their thoughts. Consider:

  • The types of things they notice: Think about the things that matter to them and their goals. What will further those goals? Hinder them? What strikes them as out of place or unusual?

  • What they're afraid of: They’ll notice the things that scare them or make them leery, even if they don’t know why. Potential threats draw attention, and may even distract them at the worst possible time.

  • What they admire: They’ll probably remark on traits or aspects of things they admire or appreciate, noticing what’s pretty or soothing, or even attractive.

  • What they’re jealous of: They might also spot things, traits, or people that make them jealous in some way.

  • What they need to know about their surroundings: Different personalities pick up on different details based on what they need to know about a room or location. For example, if they’re prone to panic attacks, they might notice where all the escape routes are. If they prefer to be the center of attention, they might notice the people and how they react to them.

  • What they need to know about other people: This can hint at how they handle their relationships. Someone who’s had a lot of bad experiences might be distrustful of people, and their thoughts would show their hesitancy and concern. Someone might want to know everyone’s names, or how well they’re dressed to decide who is worth talking to and who isn’t.

These are just some of the possibilities, but hopefully they’re enough to give you an idea of what to consider. And remember—not all of these need to be conscious thoughts. Someone just getting over a bad breakup might be wary of anyone who reminds them of their ex, even if they don’t realize it. But their thoughts might hint at that wariness or unconscious hostility.

(Here's more with Why You Should Have Judgmental Characters)

5. How does their thought process work?

Some people make snap decisions, others need to examine every possible angle before making a choice. Think about how much time and consideration your narrator needs to make a decision. This will reflect their personality in some way, as someone who’s impulsive likely makes quick decisions, and someone who is thoughtful and deliberate probably takes their time to examine every option.

To find a character’s voice, develop their personality (not physical details) until you feel you know them well enough to capture how they sound and think. Who they are will likely shine through as well.

Do you have any tips for this writer? How do you develop your first-person narrator’s voice?

*Originally published January 2017. Last updated March 2013.

Find out more about characters, voice, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Mary Nelligan1/16/2017 6:36 PM

    This is a fantastic reference. Thank you! I'm working on a new short story and I'll use these questions to help me get to know the main characters. Looking forward to next week's post also.

  2. "What she needs to know about other people" - Very thought provoking. Hadn't really thought about that one.

    I'm an accountant so year-end is pulling me away from all the things that I REALLY love - like writing, and your blog. This was a nice break and great post as always. Thanks!

  3. This is excellent. I'm printing it out so I can read it over and over and write my own ideas as I think about my characters. Thanks!

  4. Yes this has been so helpful - brilliant set of questions. I have worked through them and little lightbulbs went off in all directions. Thanks as always for your excellent posts!