Stories are dead without characters. But a character won’t breathe life without a vibrant voice, and many writers struggle to develop one that’s entertaining yet believable.
A viewpoint character should be more than a distant narrator who relays the story’s events. Readers should experience scenes through him. If readers don’t feel immersed, that usually means the author didn’t stop to ask why the character has certain thought patterns or consider whether his personality is even fitting.
So how do you prevent a bland or disjointed character voice? By laying the groundwork for who your character is. To do that, you’ll need to dig into his past and connect it to his present circumstances.
Foundation #1: Background
Whether you include your character’s backstory in your novel or not, it will have a strong influence on his choices. The past is complicated, though. You can’t condense it to a single incident or relationship (though some memories may be more pivotal than others). Everything that’s happened to your character has shaped him. If you ask questions about five key areas of his life, you’ll be able to flesh out who he is when he enters your story.
1. Where Did Your Character Grow Up?
Where your character came from is as important as where he is now. Without this information, his voice will sound artificial. A character of African descent who moved to New York when he was fifteen will have a much different voice, both internally and externally, than a character raised in the orchards of Georgia since age two. The African may have an accent and misuse English words, whereas the Georgian probably has a southern drawl and peppers her remarks with “bless your heart.”
2. What Is Your Character’s Family Like?
The people in your character’s household, and the energy they give off, can cause your character to develop recognizable speech habits. I have a large family, and with several younger siblings making noise, sometimes I have to raise my voice to be heard. I might not get much time to blurt out what I have to say either! As a result, I tend to talk fast and loud.
3. How Was Your Character Raised?
For good or for bad, kids imitate their parents. Sometimes it’s intentional—to gain approval. And other times it’s the product of continuous exposure to an attitude or mannerism. The people who cared for your character during his formative years will impact the teen or adult he becomes.
In the Marvel universe, Tony Stark was raised by a soft-spoken mother, but his egotistic father was who he wanted attention from. So Tony tried to emulate his father’s traits, which turned him into a demeaning yet charismatic man. Despite his attempts to impress his dad, however, tension often arises between them. Since Tony’s mom never defended him during arguments, he despises timid people. Distrust for others was instilled in him early on as well, causing him to skirt deep topics and get annoyed easily.
4. What Beliefs Has Your Character Accepted or Rejected?
Worldview forms during childhood but can change as the character ventures into new settings and encounters a variety of perspectives. Taught by his father’s example, Tony doesn’t hesitate to trample others to achieve his goals, and he never worries about hurting people with his words. This gives his voice a sharp tone.
5. Is Your Character Touchy about Anything?
The subjects a character avoids can be as important as the ones he’s vocal about. Tony can’t stand to discuss his relationship with his dad. He becomes overly lighthearted and beats around the bush, and the shift in his demeanor indicates he’s hiding something. When you know your character’s voice inside and out, you can employ tricks like this to hint at underlying issues.
Foundation #2: Current Life
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with your character’s past, you need to survey where he’s at and what he’s doing now. How do your character’s desires, occupation, and surroundings affect the way he communicates?
Start with your character’s interests. Let’s return to the African I mentioned earlier who immigrated to New York. He loves the theater, but he’s unaccustomed to American slang and vocabulary. So he studies and practices the language, hoping to keep people from laughing at him if he auditions for a part in a play. (This is a blend of his background and interests, which is why you need to take both into account when dealing with character voices.) But he still stumbles when speaking English, and his sentences have odd inflections because of his accent. Like so:
“It is like—it is like—” He snapped his fingers, a furrow wrinkling his brow. “You call them what? Sky-cars?”
“Yes, yes!” A broad smile creased his dark face. “First time flying. I am excited, yes? I want to make a crowd feel that way. That is why I will act.”
Your character’s job, talents, and dreams can also add color to his voice. Tony Stark is an inventor, and while other characters might focus on the big picture, he notices the details. This shows up in his voice when he faces and analyzes problems.
Any number of elements and situations in your character’s daily life can filter into his voice. An introvert who’s an attorney at a law firm will be distinct from an extrovert who works at a spa. A librarian might begin using teenage lingo when she has to adopt her two nieces after their parents’ death. All you have to do to snap the pieces together is pay attention.
Foundation #3: Personality
When I run across a convoluted term that’s new to me, I’m apt to mispronounce it if I say it aloud. This quirk is tied to my personality—I’m very bookish (which means I devour reading material) and an introvert (which means I need solitude, and that leads me to learn words through books rather than hearing others talk). Characters have these kind of idiosyncrasies too.
Tony Stark’s dialogue is fast and bold, and his personality matches. He’s dramatic and enjoys making a scene—yet underneath, due to his upbringing, he’s insecure about his worth. He masks his anxiety with nonchalance.
However, when a character is stressed, the feelings he suppresses may rush to the surface, or he won’t behave like himself. In the Iron Man movies, either Tony’s reputation or his girlfriend, Pepper Potts, is at stake. Fear leaks into his voice, giving it a testy edge. That contrasts with his usual quick wit and detachedness.
Practice this technique by writing two versions of the same scene: one where your character is confidant, and one where he’s distressed. The more you can subtly differentiate how your character acts when he’s at ease versus tense, the more realistic he’ll seem.
Explore Your Character’s Voice
You can’t portray your character correctly if you don’t understand him first. So assemble all the details that make him who he is and brainstorm how you can weave those strands into his voice. Is he fond of big words because he’s hoping to appear smarter than he feels? Does he think and talk in clipped sentences because he’s a secret agent on the run? You get to control how readers interpret him—don’t waste the opportunity to create a friend they’ll miss adventuring with after they close the book.
Savannah Grace is a Nebraska-born-and-raised author who loves writing—and reading—a good speculative story, because there’s no better place to escape than a book. When she’s not lost in (or creating!) other worlds, she can be found making a mess with watercolors, laughing way too loudly, or eating as much Korean food as she can get her hands on. She’s the submissions manager for Illuminate YA and an associate editor for Havok Publishing.
Savannah has had multiple short fiction pieces published in various places and loves helping writers hone their craft. You can find her blogging at savannahgracewrites.blogspot.com, posting sporadically on her YouTube channel (Savannah Grace), or finally finding a use for all her book pictures over on Instagram (@savannahgraceauthor). She’d love to chat with you!