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What is Character Voice?
Character voice is how a character talks and the way they express themselves in their thoughts and actions.
If all your characters have the same voice (i.e. sound the same) it’s hard for the reader to connect to your characters and care about them. They don’t seem real or believable. If the characters in dual or multi point of view novels all sound the same it becomes difficult to tell the characters apart. If multiple characters use the same phrase over and over again, that’s a red flag that their voices may not be unique to their personalities and backgrounds.
When character voice is done well, the characters come to life for the reader. They feel like real people, with distinct personalities and unique traits.
A character’s voice is developed by understanding who the character is:
- Where are they from?
- How old are they?
- What is their background?
- What is their personality?
- What do care about?
- What do they fear?
- What do they want?
- What do they know or not know?
Finding Your Character’s Voice
So how do you do figure out your character’s voice? By getting to know your characters well through things like writing character profiles. There are a some great worksheets available around the internet to prompt you with lots of questions about each one of your characters. NaNoWrimo has a fantastic Character Development Questionnaire as part of their National Novel Writing Month preparation package.
Another great resource is 4 Ways to Develop The Unique Voice of Your Character which has a helpful breakdown of how to go about developing character voice.
Character Voice in The Flatshare
Earlier this summer I reread The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and was struck by how well she writes different character voices. My first experience of the book was in audio with two different narrators reading each part. When I read the print version of the book, it only heightened the sense of how different the two character voices are. I loved it.
In The Flatshare, a dual-POV romance novel, Tiffy rents an apartment from Leon. The twist: it’s a one bedroom flat. She has it at night while he works the nightshift in a care home, and he has it during the day while she works her office job. The two characters don’t actually meet until quite a ways through the book.
Each character’s POV sections are told in first person. While each new section has a title announcing which character’s section it is, those headers are completely unnecessary. Why? Because Tiffy and Leon’s voices are completely different. Unlike many dual-POV novels that I’ve read, I never once had to check who’s POV I was reading. It was always incredibly clear.
Not sure what I mean? Let me give you some examples.
Conversation re: flat not at all as predicted. Kay was unusually angry. Seemed upset at idea of someone else sleeping in my bed besides her? But she never comes round. Hates dark green walls and elderly neighbors—is part of her “you spend too much time with old people” thing. We’re always at hers (light-gray walls, cool young neighbors).
Argument ends at weary impasse. She wants me to pull down ad and cancel Essex woman; I’m not changing my mind. It’s the best idea for getting easy cash every month that I’ve thought of, bar lottery winning, which cannot be factored in to financial planning. Do not want to go back to borrowing the £350. Kay was the one who said it: It wasn’t good for our relationship. (Page 19)
I get to work early and sink down into my chair. My desk is the closest thing to home at the moment. It’s a haven of half-crafted objects, things that have proven too heavy for me to take back on the bus, and potted plants arranged in such a way that I can see people approaching before they can tell whether I’m at my desk. My potted plant wall is widely regarded by other junior staff as an inspiring example of interior design. (Really it’s just about choosing plants the same color as your hair—in my case, red)—and ducking/running away when you catch sight of anyone moving purposefully.) (Page 7)
Hollow-cheeked, tired-eyed Holly looks up at me from bed. Seems littler. In all dimensions too—wrists, tufty growing-back hair…everything but the eyes.
She grins weakly at me.
Holly: You were here last weekend.
Me: In and out. They needed my help. Short-staffed.
Holly: Is it because I asked for you?
Me: Absolutely not. You know you’re my least favorite patient.
Bigger grin. (Page 37)
“This is too far, Katherin. I’m not going on a cruise with you.”
“But it’s free! People pay thousands for those, Tiffy!”
“You’re only joining them for the Isle of Wight Loop,” I remind her. Martin has already briefed me on this one. “And its on a weekend. I don’t work weekends.”
“It’s not work,” Katherin insists, gathering her notes and packing them into her handbag in an entirely random order. “It’s a lovely Saturday sailing trip with one of your friends.” She pauses. “Me,” she clarifies. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“I am your editor!” I say, bundling her out of the meeting room.
“Think about it, Tiffy!” she calls over her shoulder, unperturbed. (Page 8)
These character voices are radically different. Even the formatting is different. And they tell the reader a lot about each character’s personality.
I’ve heard that some readers don’t enjoy reading Leon’s sections because of how fragmented his voice is in the beginning of the book (spoiler: his voice evolves through the novel), but his voice is a bit of an extreme example of character voice. I’m not suggesting you copy this character voice (or formatting differences) at all. Rather, the drastic difference between the two voices is a great illustration of what’s possible.
The rule for character voice is that your character’s voices should be different from one another and uniquely suited to that individual character’s personality and backstory.
What books have you read with great character voices?
What have you found helpful for developing character voice?