What Is Character Voice? How Do I Develop It?
Chances are if you're writing a novel, you're telling your story through a character's point of view. Character voice is all narration from your POV character. A STRONG character voice, is when all narration is filtered through your character's unique POV—ALL thoughts, feelings, observations are narrated in a way that could only come from your character. From this definition, you may be realizing that having a well-developed character, that you (the author) know very well, is essential to crafting a strong voice.
I want to start by sharing a few of my current favorite character voices. Below, you'll find excerpts from: THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly (Holt/Macmillan, 2009; an older favorite but it's SOoo good); HUNDRED PERCENT by Karen Romano Young (Chronicle, just released Aug. 2016!); and, one of my books that I sold as an agent, THE WORLD'S GREATEST CHOCOLATE-COVERED PORK CHOPS by R.K. Sager (Disney-Hyperion, coming summer 2017!). I've made the deliberate choice to focus on Middle Grade for this post because this seems to be the toughest age group to capture, in an authentic voice. However, know that all of my points can and should be applied to any fiction project—picture book through YA (and adult of course, but my specialty is children's so that's the scope of this blog!).
My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then everybody called me Callie Vee. That summer, I was eleven years old and the only girl out of seven children. Can you imagine a worse situation? I was spliced midway between three older brothers—Harry, Sam Houston, and Lamar—and three younger brothers—Travis, Sul Ross, and the baby, Jim Bowie, whom we called J.B. The little boys actually managed to sleep at midday, sometimes even piled atop one another like damp, steaming puppies. The men who came in from the fields and my father, back from his office at the cotton gin, slept too, first dousing themselves with tin buckets of tepid well water on the sleeping porch before falling down on their rope beds as if poleaxed.
Yes, the heat was a misery, but it also brought me my freedom. While the rest of the family tossed and dozed, I secretly made my way to the San Marcos River bank and enjoyed a daily interlude of no school, no pestiferous brothers, and no Mother. I didn’t have permission to do this, exactly, but no one said I couldn’t. I got away with it because I had my own room at the far end of the hall, whereas my brothers all had to share, and they would have tattled in a red-hot second. As far as I could tell, this was the sole decent thing about being the only girl.
-Excerpt from THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE
Tink had never dreamed that today, in the second week of sixth grade, she'd by lying on the ground with the cutest boys in the sixth grade, rolling in the grass and singing.
What she dreamed of, when she dreamed of Will Wheeler, was what happens to Wendy in chapter one of Peter Pan and Wendy:
The window of Tink's room is ajar. Outside is her favorite kind of weather, warm and windy all at once. The wind whistles and smells of fall and grass and leaves and horse chestnuts. She is lying in bed, almost asleep, wearing a long white nightgown, with her long red hair in a long silky braid. (Just so you recall, Tink didn’t have long red hair. Tink’s hair was short and brown and curly.)
The window opens, and someone comes in. It is a second-floor window, so how does this happen? The boy who comes in can fly, that’s how. He flies around Tink’s room bumping into things, making the wind chimes chime, trying to wake her up. He needs his shadow sewn back on, and only she has the magic to sew it. It has come loose from his body, and he’s lost without it. If she sews it, he’ll take her flying to Neverland.
So she gets up out of bed and takes a needle from her pincushion. (She’s the kind of girl who sews, which Tink is not.) She threads it with a strand of silver-gray thread, and she begins to sew. With her fingers she touches lightly along the back of the boy’s head (she pictures Will’s gold- brown hair), the back of his neck, his shoulders, down the backs of his legs to his feet. Somehow she doesn’t hurt him sewing his shadow on. All those needle pricks, and not a drop of blood.
“Bushwah, Chris,” Jackie would say to Tink, if she knew.
It was not the word Tink’s mother would say. She’d have two words of her own for it, two words she said often lately. “Boy-crazy,” she’d say. “This is when it all starts.
-Excerpt from HUNDRED PERCENT
Zoey stood in front of a yellow stove-top oven, stirring a pot of bubbling hazelnut fudge. Steam
rose like chimney smoke, fogging up the kitchen’s windows and glass cupboards. Sweat dripped from Zoey’s face, making her lips chapped and salty. Wiping her damp cheek on the shoulder of her jacket, Zoey thought to herself, “Someone should invent a toque with a mini air conditioner inside. Heaven knows there’s room.”
She had four pots going at once. From the tallest of these pots emerged a wriggling octopus tentacle. Zoey whacked the tentacle with her red alder spoon. “Oh no you don’t!” The tentacle slithered back into the pot.
Once again, Zoey delved the spoon into the frothy fudge. While her right hand stirred, her left hand arranged five peeled bananas into a straight line on the counter. Then, the left hand caressed the handles of a dozen knives clinging to a magnetic strip on the wall. After a brief, tactile perusal, her fingers closed on the handle of a super-sharp, super-awesome, double-edged, rust-proof steel Misono 440 Santoku. Yeah, baby. With this prince of knives, her left hand commenced slicing the bananas into fat, symmetrical discs.
She tasted the fudge sauce. Milky. Nutty. Rich. A tad too runny, and that was deliberate. Chocolate sauce, you see, gets firmer as it cools. By the time her chocolate sauce reached a consumable temperature, the consistency would be just right.
Zoey ladled the fudge sauce into a small glass bowl. She placed the bowl on a silver platter, next to bowls of rasp- berry sauce and caramel sauce.
Next, she taste-tested a fried banana piece. Crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, yummy all over. À la perfection.
She plated the fried bananas, then plattered the plate. With steady hands, she carried the platter across the kitchen, toed open the two-way kitchen door, and glided into the dining room.
- Excerpt from THE WORLD'S GREATEST CHOCOLATE-COVERED PORK CHOPS
The text I've shared here is relatively short, but do you feel like you know these characters pretty well already? If you said "yes," you can thank the character voice.
Guess what else these three excerpts have in common…. They're all pulled from the first 10 pages. See how high the bar is for those first pages? (Check out the intro on my home page where I talk about the HUGE importance of the first 10 pages!). If an agent isn't hooked with these first pages and passes, you can't go back to them and say, but if you just read the first 50 pages I KNOW you'll fall in love with my character. As these three books show, you can and should hook a reader in your first paragraphs, and very possibly your first sentence. And you do this…with voice.
Here are three key questions to ask yourself to assess your character voice. (Note, these three points should't be considered in isolation, they're all interconnected and build on one another. As with all elements of writing!):
1. Can the reader get a feel for my character (i.e., her personality, wants, dislikes, fears, etc.) through her voice?
To pass this first test, you (the author) need to know what your character's unique traits are. This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised at how many submissions I would see where the character has little, or no, distinguishing character traits. This could be because the author does in fact have a fleshed out character that he knows well—and all those wonderful traits just didn't make it on the page; or, the character doesn't HAVE any distinguishing features, and rather, she's just a vehicle for telling a story. Either way, if you put yourself in the role of a reader (i.e., someone who's not you, who's coming into the story totally fresh) and ask yourself the above question honestly, you should be able to figure out if and where your voice is falling flat. (Critique groups come in very handy for this. I shared more about critique groups in "step 1" of my last post.)
If you're answering "no" to this question—time to add more personality! Look at the EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE excerpt—what can we assume about the character based just on her voice? …She maybe feels a bit trapped by being sandwiched between six boys, and being a girl; maybe she's science-inclined—note her use of the word "spliced"; she's a bit of a rule breaker and likes her solitude (she mentions getting her freedom, and "secretly" making her way to the river, without "permission"); and she's a bit disillussioned with being a girl.
What are your character's distinguishing traits? Do a brainstorm of all of your character's special traits, quirks, mannerisms, expressions. Or interview your character—make a list of questions and see how she responds. Essentially, you want to know what makes your character unique. Why are you choosing to tell this story through her, rather than anyone else? If you're having a hard time with this: make a study of your own kids (or friends' kids); read more books for your age group, watch their TV shows/movies. If you're still having a difficult time, perhaps experiment with writing for a different age group (e.g., picture books or YA). Experiment as much as you need to until you figure out what age group YOUR voice is best suited for. Middle grade can be the toughest voice to get right!
2. Am I "showing" the reader my character, by letting her develop organically, using her own voice, or am I relying on "telling" the reader about my character (i.e., telling the reader about your character's personality, wants, dislikes, fears, etc.)?
If you've been writing for any length of time, you've heard a billion times already "show don't tell."It's a simple concept—SHOW the reader your character, world, events through live scenes; rather than TELL them about it. Any novel will have a mix of both of course (you can't "show" everything), but many newer authors are overly reliant on "telling."Authors might have a hard time trusting the reader to figure out everything they feel they NEED to know about their character (or world/setting/event/etc)—especially in the first pages!—so they feel compelled to set the scene with a lot of narrative telling.
However, the reader gets a much stronger sense of your character when you just drop us into her head, and let us get to know her organically. (Also, the reader doesn't NEED to know everything about your character right away!) Take the HUNDRED PERCENT excerpt: Instead of telling the reader that Tink is boy-crazy, the author showed her having a cool daydream about her crush. Doesn't this do WAY more for developing Tink's character voice in an engaging and authentic way, rather than just telling the reader she's boy crazy? And with PORK CHOPS, you can just feel (taste!) Zoey's skill and passion as she buzzes around the kitchen. It's also way easier to slip into an adult author voice when you're "telling" about your character. So, if you're noticing a lot of "telling" in your manuscript, especially in those crucial first pages, try "showing" the reader that information instead, by relaying it through a live scene—then see how it affects the strength of your character voice. (Side note: Show vs. Tell is also super important for the pacing of your narrative, but I'm just focusing on character voice for this post. I'll try to do a post just on Show vs. Tell, soon!).
3. Am I maintaining an authentic, young voice throughout? Are there any parts where my adult author voice is coming through?
This is the toughest one, because I think it's the most difficult to teach. It's not so easy to put yourself in the head of 12-year-old—especially when it's likely been some years since you were one. You may be able to train yourself to recognize when that adult author voice comes through, but is the voice you're replacing it with authentic enough? This comes back to question #1—ensuring that all your character's unique, age-appropriate mannerisms, quirks, and traits, come through in the text. You'll hear a lot about the importance of crafting an authentic, young voice. Especially for middle grade—since it's hard to get right, and it's crucial for the book's success. In fact, when I was agenting, a lack of such a voice was my most used reason for passing on middle grade submissions (and well, all submissions). The thing is, kids want to read about kids their own age, whom they can relate to. If they're reading phrases that sound like something their parent would say, chances are they won't be reading much further.
Again, this is where critique groups can come in handy. Something that you may feel sounds authentic to an 8-year-old might not cut the mustard with a critique group partner that happens to have an 8-year-old. Some authors seem to have a pretty easy time putting themselves in the head of an 8-12-year-old, others have to take a more studied approach, but it's still completely doable (check out my tips from question #1). The author of THE WORLD'S GREATEST CHOCOLATE-COVERED PORK CHOPS happens to have a daughter around the same age as Zoey's character, and he took a lot of inspiration from her precociousness (hence a 12-year-old who opens her own restaurant!). Whatever your situation, draw from your own experiences (from when you were a kid, and/or those of your own kids), make use of a young-at-heart critique group, and/or immerse yourself in kid culture as much as you can. Have fun—it will come through in your voice!
If you have any questions, or other tips on developing character voice, feel free to leave a comment!
Wait! Before you get ready to submit your work, be sure to check out my post, "Is Your Manuscript Agent-Ready?"
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