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Layering Powerful Voice to Create Memorable Characters
"Musings" for March 2005

by Margot Finke

New writers are often puzzled when a rejection letter states that their main character lacks a strong voice. So, what is voice?

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There are two voices in writing. One is the writing style that, over time, writers develop--their own voice. The voice I want to deal with comes from your characters. The way you craft your characters will decide their voice, and whether they become powerful, jump-off-the-page characters, or pale, fade-into-the-text nonentities. Quirks, mannerisms, and human failings should be an integral part of each character's past and present. Your story is seen, told and experienced, through the eyes, ears, and senses of your main POV (point of view) character. It takes a main POV with a powerful voice, to grab a reader by the scruff of the neck, and keep him reading until THE END.

Voice, when writing great characters, can relate to many things. Moral fiber, humor, opinions and presence: they all help build a memorable voice. Think of the people in your life – friends, relatives, work associates. Each of these people is a mixture of quirks, humor, opinions, etc. These personality traits make them into unique individuals. Layer some of the same wild, wacky, funny or deadly actions and thought processes onto your characters.

Strong voice does not have to mean loud personality. It can come from tough character, cool judgment, or firm opinions. But when the screw is turned, and fateful decisions loom, make sure your main character brings a powerful voice to your story.

That's all fine and dandy, but how do you give several assorted characters, plus your main POV, powerful voices? Think of an onion. I'm serious! There are layers of skin to peel before you get to the good stuff in the middle of that onion. Building your character's voice uses the same technique; only this time you layer from the inside out. And the layers need to come in snippets – a fact here, a whisper or an overheard phone conversation there. Please, no dumping large chunks of informational text. Focus on blending in, little by little, the many physical and emotional layers that reveal each character's voice. Memorable characters are steeped in complexity and detail. Their layers are many and varied. Begin the layering process on the first page.

Some How-to Suggestions:

  • Use comments from other characters to describe or praise or criticize your main POV character. EXAMPLE: "Hey! That's just plain garbage! Sure, there's a ton of gossip about the whole thing. But Dave never beat Marsha, I can tell you that up front. I was there that night. I know. She'd downed a few too many and tripped: hit every stair on the way down. Stupid girl. Doesn't remember what happened, but blamed Dave anyway. Watch your mouth in future. You got it straight now?"

This adds layers to these three characters – some good and some not so good. Indirect voice building is a subtle thing.

  • Be they your main villain, your romantic lead, or your comic relief, layering on humor, romance, or drama, gives each character their own individual voice.
  • Scrap some common attribution. Instead, give your character an action or a reaction. If done with care, this offers a great way to enrich your POV, and strengthen her voice. EXAMPLE: "You can't stay and eat with us? But you promised!" The smile froze on her face as she watched him walk out the door.
  • It is better to SHOW your characters taking part in the action, rather than have them tell about it. Actions and reactions help build the voice of your characters, and make them believable.
  • Make your POV's dialogue subtly self-revealing. His thoughts and opinions (in dialogue) set the tone of his character, thereby enhancing his voice.
  • Know your characters intimately. Focus on making sure they always speak, act and react, in ways that fit their character, the period, and your overall plan for them.
  • Regularly insert brief snippets about a character's background. This beefs up his story and voice - far better than occasionally dumping large areas of informational text.
  • Find a good Thesaurus and use it often. Dig out active potent verbs that help you craft a strong voice.
  • Adding a powerful active verb, to a short punchy sentence, does more for tension building and voice, than a long rambling sentence that uses weaker verbs.
  • Allow your main character some weakness he can either outgrow or overcome as the story progresses. No one is perfect. Kids know this - they sure aren't. Your reader wants to root for a character they can identify with.
  • Use inner thought (in italics) to take the reader into your protagonist's (main POV character) head and heart. But remember, thought is often ragged and piecemeal. It also comes in first person, present tense.
  • Finally, reread the books whose characters you thought were strong, fascinating, or in some way memorable. Study how the authors developed the layers that made these characters stick in your memory.

The Secret of a Successful Character's Voice:

I think the secret here is to be emotionally involved with your plot and your characters. If they feel real to you, and inhabit your head and your heart, strong voice and a great plot flow more easily. As with life, when you feel passionately, your love is fierce and tender, and your understanding of those who own a piece of your heart's real estate is deep and powerful.

Immerse yourself in the lives of your characters and their voice will come - powerful and clear.

Happy writing, mates!

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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