Four points to finding character voice
One of the hardest parts of starting a new book, is discovering your character’s voice. Genre fiction is best when it brings the reader deep within the story. As readers, we derive the most pleasure from vicariously living the life of the protagonist. Without even moving from our chair, we live everything the character lives—at least in our own mind.
To create this immersive experience for our readers we need our characters to have unique, distinct voices. But where does this voice come from and how do we, the author, discover it?
Character voice is made-up of different things:
1. Where they are from
2. The characters economic background
3. What they feel is important—their values
4. And what sort of person they are
Point number one is probably pretty obvious. Where someone is from will determine their vocabulary, grammatical structure of their sentences (if they are a non-native speaker of English) and, of course, their accent. For example, if someone calls Coca-Cola “pop” the character is likely from the Midwest; if they call it “soda” they are from the East Coast. And if someone is from Britain, they would use very different vocabulary than an American. It’s distinctive vocabulary like that that will add color and texture to a character’s voice.
Equally important, and possibly equally obvious, is the character’s socioeconomic background. If you want to stick to stereotypes, you can have poorer characters speak ungrammatically, and wealthier ones use big words, but I would find it so much more interesting if the boy from the slums sounds as if he swallowed a dictionary because he is trying to escape from his past.
You might not expect someone’s values to affect their voice, but indeed it does. It affects not only what they say out loud, but how they think—their inner voice. What do they notice when they walk into a room? Is it the large TV on the wall? The museum quality paintings—or conversely the posters? Is it the people in the room or the memories that are evoked either because the character has been there before or because it reminds them of another room very similar to this one. All of this is reflected in the character’s voice.
And finally, what may be the most difficult part of discovering your character’s voice is to discover what sort of person they are. Is she a snarky person with language filled with barbed quips? Or is she soft spoken afraid to draw attention to herself? Is he a precise man enunciating every word, never using contractions and noticing every speck of dust in a room, or a slovenly athlete who is confused if he can see the floor of his bedroom and uses a curse every other word?
Finding out what sort of person your character is will encompass some of the things we’ve already discussed, but also their personal history, how they were treated as a child, what sorts of traumatic events they’ve had to deal with, even their own expectations for themselves and what they want out of life. All of these things go into making us who we are and how we speak. All of these things determine your character’s voice.