Monday, January 16

How to Find Your Character's Voice

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series

Q: I struggle with internalization in first person POV. I've read your internalization 101 post. Maybe it's that I don't know my character well enough to get a feel for how she would describe what she sees, feels, hears etc. I don't feel like I'm quite there with her voice and I think big part of it comes down to her thoughts (or lack thereof).

A: I’m going to answer this question in two parts (my answer on voice got quite long). Today I'll talk about developing a character's voice, and next week, I’ll look specifically at writing first person internalization and how it differs from third person.

Since voice is heard so strongly in internalization, it’s possible a lack of voice is indeed what’s holding you back. Let’s focus on some ways to find your character’s voice, and how to use that voice to write your internalization. Start with a little character development tailored specifically for voice:

1. What’s her 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 she’s 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 she appears to the world: This is how she sounds to others.
  • How she views herself: This is how she sounds internally.
  • How she wants to appear: This is how she’d sound if she was brave enough to say what she really thinks (or not say if she’s too open about her opinions or feelings).
(Here’s more on creating 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. Her internal voice will reflect the type of humor she enjoys and employs. If the novel’s tone is dark and brooding, the narrator will probably see the darker side of things and contemplate her 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 on tone and mood)

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

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

(Here’s more on how characters might answer questions)

4. What does she think about?

Look to your goals, internal conflict, and character arc for options here. Her motivations will likely be on her mind, as well as the things she worries about. For example, if she’s caught up in a fight, her goal for how she wants that fight to end could be on her mind. If she’s worried, what might go wrong would probably be flashing through her thoughts. Consider:
  • The types of things she notices: Think about the things that matter to her and her goals. What will further those goals? Hinder them? What strikes her as out of place or unusual?
  • What she’s afraid of: She’ll notice the things that scare her or make her leery, even if she doesn’t know why. Potential threats draw attention, and may even distract her at the worst possible time.
  • What she admires: She’ll probably remark on traits or aspects of things she admires or appreciates, noticing what’s pretty or soothing, or even attractive.
  • What’s she’s jealous of: She might also spot things, traits, or people that make her jealous in some way.
  • What she needs to know about her surroundings: Different personalities pick up on different details based on what they need to know about a room or location. For example, if she’s prone to panic attacks, she might notice where all the escape routes are. If she prefers to be the center of attention, she might notice the people and how they react to her.
  • What she needs to know about other people: This can hint at how she handles her relationships. Someone who’s had a lot of bad experiences might be distrustful of people, and her thoughts would show her 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 her of her ex, even if she doesn’t realize it. But her thoughts might hint at that wariness or unconscious hostility.

5. How does her 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 her personality in some way, as someone who’s impulsive likely makes snap decisions, and someone who is thoughtful and deliberate probably takes her time to examine every option.

Struggling with internalization could just be a red flag that you haven’t figured out enough about the character to write her yet. Try developing the character and her personality (not physical details) until you feel you know her well enough to capture her voice. Her internalization ought to start flowing naturally then.

Do you have any tips for this writer? How do you develop your first-person narrator’s 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 (and Amazon bestseller), 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, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. 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!