The Uniqueness of a Character’s Voice

bad-day-for-pretty-240hVery early in my writing life, I shared a story with some local writers during an event at the library where I lived in California. My prose told of an adventure involving pirates, pick-pocketing urchins, and buxom wenches. The writers read my tale and after a long moment of silence, one of them politely stated that she had problems distinguishing between my characters.

I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, the writer said, in a crisp English accent, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, you see, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two males and one female were speaking. None of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fuck.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant. It still kind of did.

I revised and proudly showed up for a second evening of sharing at the library. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” The writer’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand. Before leaving, I checked out a few books on the craft of writing.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking—and then stay consistent through the story

I new favorite author I recently started reading is Sophie Littlefield. I love her books because she is a master of close third person point of view. My favorite books of hers are a series of crime novels rich with humor and quirky characters. Told entirely from the main character’s POV, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to laugh out loud.

Stella Hardesty is a fifty-year-old woman who, after years of abuse, killed her alcoholic husband, Ollie, and got away with it. She now runs an underground operation where she helps women deal with their abusive men. Mostly, this involves justice “doled out in secret, in back alleys and secluded shacks, in the dead of the night, far away from any citizens who may be startled by the screams of the latest woman-abusing cretin who was having his attitude adjusted.” (From A BAD DAY FOR PRETTY, the second book in the series.) Stella gets so many referrals about men who needs attitude adjustments that she rarely has time to run her legitimate business, a sewing shop.

Whether through dialogue or narrative, Stella’s voice is always consistent and always clear. Here’s a passage from the first book in the series, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY:

“Stella had drained the Johnnie. She hadn’t really intended to, but some nights were like that. Some nights were for thinkin’ and drinkin’, when it seemed like you couldn’t do one without the other.  Stella rarely drank in the days before Ollie died. She’d figured that someone in the house ought to stay sober, and Ollie frequently wasn’t up to the job.”

As the series progresses, Stella gets involved with the new sheriff, “Goat” Jones. As you can imagine, middle-aged dating doesn’t read like the average romance novel, and being a lawless “avenger of wronged” women while hot for the lawman adds some tension to the plot. From A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL (3d in series):

“‘Oh, my.’ Stella managed to breathe shakily before Goat backed her into the corner of the countertop and settled his big hands on her hips. He let them slide slowly down to cup her ass, which she had jammed into a Spanx Hide & Sleek Hi-Rise Panty before slipping on the slinky purple faux-wrap dress that her daughter, Noelle, had given her as a surviving-being-held-at-gunpoint-together gift the prior fall. Stella was fairly sure she would enjoy the sensation of Goat’s strong fingers kneading her flesh if it hadn’t gone numb in its fierce polyester-Lycra prison hours ago.”

I don’t have Littlefield’s skill, but these days I try to make my characters stand out by more than just their preference of curse words. I give them different ways of speaking by playing with vocabulary and tone of voice. They often have a particular quirk, or pet peeve, or something in their background colors their perception of people, places, and things. After I’ve gotten to know my characters, I go back through my manuscript and tighten sections where I’m in a particular character’s POV and make his or her voice stand out better.

During those moments of not knowing what to write for the day, or while I have a few minutes between tasks in my every-day life, I play with these favorite exercises for flushing out characters’ uniqueness:

1) I make my characters describe a childhood event. It could be a road trip they took with their parents, a traumatic event, or something that happened at school. I then rewrite that scene as if they were a child, using their younger voice as the narrator.

2) I imagine an event in the past that made my character sad, angry, happy, or scared. I make the character describe the event and think hard about what unique words or phrases describe how personal this event was to that particularly character.bad-day-for-sorry-240h

3) I pretend that I am writing a scene for a movie. In other words, I can’t describe my characters feelings or thoughts. Instead, I have to rely only on gestures to get their emotions across. This forces me to imagine the unique movements or quirks my characters would use.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you have a favorite way of learning your character’s voice?

Comment below and in one week (Tuesday 10/13, 5 pm PST), I’ll draw a random name to win an author-signed copy of A BAD DAY FOR SORRY.

25 Comments

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Haha I sincerely love the scenes of you going to those writing groups. You make me happy :)

    And I especially like exercise #3! What a great way to work new muscles.

  • Joi Libsack says:

    It appears that a lot goes into writing those wonderful books I so love to read. Thanks to all the writers that put in all the time and effort to bring their characters alive for readers like me! Will have to start reading this series. It sounds very fun.

  • Anna G says:

    While I don’t do a lot of writing personally, I have dabbled a bit. When creating a character, I try to think about what makes them tick, what motivates them – I will create a list with a bunch of words and phrases, depending on how far I want to go with them it might get divided into childhood, teen, adult. Then I will start to fill in with a back story, it just depends on how deep and if I want to reveal it later – I’ve got something to work with…

  • Virginia says:

    Sounds crazy, but once I can ‘see’ my characters in my mind’s eye and visualize them moving around, I start to ‘hear’ how they speak. If I think about it too hard and try to invent a voice, it never works out. Cool ideas for exercises!

  • Debra says:

    Loved this post! When I write, I don’t often think of separating the unique way each character speaks. I just listen to the voices in my head and do what they tell me!

  • Teresa says:

    Oh, my gosh! These types of books are exactly what I’m always looking for to read. Descriptons, humor…. murder. What could possibly be better@
    !

  • Sandra B says:

    Love the line about her butt going numb from being shoved into spanx. I will have to track down these books…or borrow yours!

    • Asa Maria says:

      Stay tuned to see if you win the first one. :-)
      I have all the others on my Nook, and unfortunately they don’t seem to have the “lend me” feature activated.

  • I learn about my characters during the first draft, and once it’s finished, I have to go back and add details I’ve discovered about them.

    I’m excited to read these books! :)

  • Cathryn Cade says:

    Asa,

    Thanks so much for sharing your early attempts at writing! I’m wiping away tears of laughter.

    My first story characters did not so much cursing, but they uttered EVERY CLICHE KNOWN TO MAN & WOMAN. Yup, bad enough for all caps.

    Now when I read my early jottings, I howl at some of my lit-icisms, but I also enjoy the enthusiasm with which my younger, inexperienced self wrote. When that’s gone, time to hang up the computer keyboard.

    With your wit, I certainly understand why you enjoy Sophie L’s work. I’m off to buy the first in the series, myself and thanks for the rec.

    best,
    Cathryn Cade

  • Bonnie B says:

    My favorite books are not those that have great plots (although that also helps), they are those that make a character come alive for me, and usually a character that I like or admire or at very least understand. That sucks me in every time!

  • Erin D says:

    Numbness from Spanx! Awesome.

    I like the idea of having a character describe a childhood memory. I also like the idea of having a character stuck someplace (maybe on a flight across the pond) and engaging in conversation with the person sitting next to them. Do they share a childhood memory? A current event? A lie? What would come out when there may not be in consequences from the telling?

    I had never thought to do this until I read your post, Asa. So thanks!!

  • Holly Williams says:

    “Voice” was always a mysterious pie-in-the-sky concept to me when they would talk about it in grad school. How do you find your voice as a writer, I wondered. How could I get one? What did I have to do? Sounds like I need to read these novels!

  • Random.org picked Anna G as the lucky winner of A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. Anna, I’ll contact you off-line to get the book to you. Congratulations!

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