Ask any agent or editor what they look for in a manuscript and inevitably they’ll say they’re looking for voice. A strong voice. A unique voice. An original voice. A realistic voice. But how do you ensure you and your main character possess this? That’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it?
There is a lot of writing advice out there, some good, some not so good, and I’ll try not to repeat it. I’m only going to talk about what works for me, and I hope it can provide some guidance and help for you as you develop yours. So with that caveat in mind, let’s talk about Voice.
There are a couple of definitions it’s useful to keep in mind as we go. There is Author Voice and Character Voice. I can’t tell you much about Author Voice. That’s all you and everyone is different. No two Author Voices are the same. It’s how you speak and think and then how you translate that to the page. All I can really say is trust yourself. Be yourself. Don’t try to write like someone else, it’ll sound fake.
Character Voice on the other hand, that I will talk about. A strong voice is what will make your character feel authentic to readers. Several friends who have read The Wolf Road have given me the same comment—I forgot you, my friend, wrote it. They don’t hear me or my voice in the book at all. Even my mother said the same. This is a good thing. It means the character's voice was strong enough to overtake mine.
Here are a few things to consider if you’re looking to write a story with a strong voice.
First-person vs Third-person
I’ve always found it easier to inject voice into first person. The Wolf Road is in first person, so is my second novel. I love writing this way. I can get deep into my character’s heads and explore their feeling and reactions in every situation. It can be frustrating not to have a second voice or something happen with another, far away, character that increases the tension or adds a new perspective but I’m happy to forgo that convenience to get close to my main character, plus it makes for a more challenging overall writing task, and who doesn’t love a challenge? I couldn’t have written The Wolf Road any other way. The story is all about Elka’s past, her memories, and her dawning realisations. I couldn’t have done half of what I did in this book without writing in first person. A first-person story has to be told in your character’s voice. A third-person story is, usually, told in the author’s voice. That author voice can take on all kinds of new and shiny characteristics but I’ve always found with third person, the author is telling the story whereas with first person, the character is and that’s what I love about it. I want my characters to reach through the page and pull you in instead of me, the author, trying to push you.
Dialect & Accent
You don’t have to write in dialect to give voice. The Wolf Road has its fair share of dialect but Elka’s character and her background, required it. Where a normal character might say, ‘I heard squirrels in the trees’, Elka says ‘Chittering somewhere in the tree above me said squirrels were coming out’. Instead of using the word ‘of’, she says ‘a’, she drops off syllables in words. Instead of ‘between’ and ‘about’ it’s ‘tween’, ‘bout’. It can take some getting used to. Dialect can add color and flavor to a story and can show a lot about a character’s education and past without having to spell it out. Dialect and accents are great to play with and not every character has to sport it. In Wuthering Heights, Joseph the faithful servant speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent so Bronte wrote his lines as almost indecipherable dialect. It is an elegant way to show his character and his background without going into unnecessary detail. Use dialect sparingly, a lot of people don’t like it and it can be difficult to convey the exact accent you have in mind, especially as not all readers will have heard it. It’s safer (but less fun, in my opinion) to limit your dialect usage to very careful word choice, which I’ll talk about more below.
Good writing is all about rhythm. If you haven’t read this wonderful quote by Gary Provost about varying sentence length, go and do it now, then come back here. Rhythm is essential and you need to tune your ear to the world to pick it up. Listen to the way people speak, listen to the way you and your friends and family speak. Try to pick up sentence length and emphasis. Where does someone from New York put the emphasis? Where does someone from London? What about that woman from rural Wales? Pay attention to the difference between how men and women, adults and children, speak. There are some particular regional dialects I love which sound like music. In the UK, the Scouse accent is amazing and lyrical. The Scouse are storytellers and if you get one going on a particularly funny event, they’ll never stop. I’ve always held a deep and abiding love for storytelling traditions, in particular the oral histories of the American south, especially when used in movies like Forrest Gump and Fried Green Tomatoes. In my wilder writing dreams, a part of me wanted to write a book in which, should it ever be turned into a movie, could work with a voice-over narrator. We’ll see! Remember, a novel, novella, short, all have one thing in common—they’re stories and stories are best when they’re told.
Word Choice & Character Background
Word choice and background will hugely inform your character’s voice. I can’t overstate this too much. If you want your characters to be 3D, stop thinking of them as characters and start thinking of them as people. They have a past, they have dreams and desires and goals and a reason to get up in the morning. Look at people, their backgrounds form a huge part of who they are and how they approach the world. A woman who has been homeless for ten years will not speak in the same way as a twenty-something man working in a bank. Even if they both went to the same school. Even if they are brother and sister and had identical upbringings. Something changed and now they’re poles apart. These pieces of their past will have an impact on how they speak. It’s a good idea to think about these things when you create your character. Elka in The Wolf Road, for example, has no formal schooling, grew up in a remote wilderness with a distant, stoic man. When she talks about her feelings or her observations, she talks in terms of nature, with incorrect grammar, she’s uncouth, has very few manners, a limited vocabulary, but talks in a respectful way about the wild. It matches her background. Penelope, on the other hand, is highly educated, from a big town and a loving family so speaks properly, carefully, with a better vocabulary and can read people better. She also, sometimes, speaks ambiguously or sarcastically, neither of which Elka quite grasps.
Probably the most important part of any character voice is making sure it’s consistent. There’s nothing worse than reading a fantastic, rich voice and then being jolted out of its music by a misplaced word or sentence. My favourite technique to ensure a consistent voice is to read it out loud. This is useful for all types of writing but if you’re looking for voice, it’s essential. If you’re a nervous reader, you can get all kinds of software to read it out for you.
Don’t be afraid to break the rules, especially grammar. If you know the rules, you can smash them apart and put them back together however you like, that’s the fun of writing. You’re creating a world, populating it, you’re creating a piece of that world’s history and future, that’s what writing is and why it’s so wonderful. Break the rules, bend them, but remember, when you really think about it, you’ll see that in truth, there are no rules.