Sometimes characters come to us in pieces. A whisper of dialogue, a murmur of a dream, or even a feeling can ignite a glimmer of inspiration that demands to become a person.
But a character is more than a rushed scribble inside our notebooks. Although voice is one of the most mysterious yet important parts of character, it can be the hardest to cultivate. Voice impacts how readers perceive a character. It’s the flavor of his dialogue and the pulse of his thoughts. We need to connect and clarify the stray fragments to become a distinct tone readers will remember. Voice originates from character, and knowing our character can help us pinpoint his tone faster than waiting for more ideas to arrive.
Finding Voice Through Traits
A character’s voice typically consists of two or three prominent traits. Ironic, isn’t it? We are told to develop, develop, develop, yet too many quirks can ruin a character’s voice. Memorable voices often spring out of only a handful of distinguishable attributes.
Think about a book with a remarkable character and consider his voice. How does he sound? Is he nonchalant and sarcastic? Calm and sophisticated? Sharp and emotional? Try to boil his voice down to two or three characteristics.
A character’s voice earns these labels because they’re synonymous with who he is. His main attributes are ingrained so deeply that they define his inner monologue.
But what can we do if we can’t identify our character’s primary qualities? A character may be born from a snippet of backstory, an action, or a line of dialogue. If so, we need to evaluate these three areas to reveal the thread that drew us to that detail.
#1: Backstory. If our character appeared in a flash of backstory, delving into his past may unearth who he is.
Defining events tend to change a person’s behavior. For instance, a hot-tempered character might learn to control himself after he inflicted a mortal injury on a friend. That event in his past compels him to restrain his rage, and the shift in his personality causes his internal monologue to be marked by patience, or at least the struggle to remain calm. In this way, unpacking his backstory exposes his voice.
#2: Actions and Motivations. If our inspiration came from an action or choice, we need to uncover the character’s underlying virtues and vices. Is he rescuing a cat from the middle of a busy highway? Maybe that means he’s noble and brave. Is he saving said cat because he thinks it will impress his girlfriend? Maybe he’s a reckless show-off.
Notice that both characters performed the same action yet are completely different. How?
It’s all about motivation.
Motivation determines how a character employs a basic trait. Two characters might display sarcasm, but the heart behind it makes each of them unique. If a character is sarcastic and selfish, he might blurt sharp remarks at the expense of his buddies. If he’s sarcastic but focused on others, he might use his wit to cheer up a hurting friend.
Motivation not only influences how a character behaves but how his inner monologue is shaped. A character motivated by maintaining a flawless reputation would constantly worry how others view his actions. A character driven by his own happiness would concentrate on his own needs and complain when his desires are not satisfied.
Keep in mind that motivations are fluid and often teeter between selfishness and sacrifice. Don’t give characters perfect motivations. A character whose sole reason for living is to help others would be unrealistic and have an unconvincing voice. When adding a character’s voice to the story, be sure to show his fluctuating motivations. Let his thoughts waver between good and selfish impulses when weighing a decision. Force him to fight the logic that led to past sins. Have him struggle to change after he realizes his actions were wrong.
#3: Dialogue. A string of dialogue can pop up out of nowhere, begging to belong to a character. We can’t assume everything about our fictional person from a few words, but if we’re absolutely stuck on the exchange, it’s probably unique and meaningful.
Let’s take this dialogue prompt as an example:
“Aren’t you going to do something?”
“I’m paid to protect you from abuse, not your own stupidity.”
“You’re the worst bodyguard ever.”
What traits can we extract from this conversation? Can we create a nonchalant protector who’s obsessed with loopholes? Is the first speaker a spoiled rich kid who expects his bodyguards to get him out of trouble? The possibilities are numerous if we dig deep.
Playing with Our Findings
We’ve discovered how to fashion small details into a character’s defining traits, which we can meld into voice. Now, what’s the next step? Searching for more inspiration! Character traits can help us form voice, but only if we have a foundation to build on. Pouring out our character’s thoughts in a piece of flash fiction, drafting a conversation between him and his friend, or even talking with him out loud fans that original spark into a blaze.
Before converting an idea into character voice, we must remember that our goal is to establish a few distinctive traits, not a massive list that will drown out the character’s tone. Then we can apply what we’ve learned about our character’s inner monologue and be well on our way to crafting a memorable voice.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.