by Liam Cross
Writing a novel is like exploring a forest…
There are many different paths, many of them carved out by those who explored before you, and you aren’t quite sure which one to take. Maybe it’s none of them. There’s also a lot of unexplored shrubbery, and you could maybe carve your own way through. You’re lost, to put it plainly. And it’s getting dark.
Oh, and your flashlight just went out…
SO WHAT IS CHARACTER VOICE, ANYWAY?
It may sound a little self-explanatory, but character voice goes way deeper than the way your characters talk. It’s also more than just the way the text is written from a first person POV. You can get into character voice in third person writing, too. And that’s what we’re going to place our focus on today.
Here’s something for you to think about.
You know in those awesomely written books that are like, you know, international bestsellers? And do you know how, in those books, after a while, you can pretty much tell which character’s thoughts/perspective/speech you’re getting before the narrator even tells you? Well, that’s character voice.
Your goal is to make your characters so well-rounded and defined that they too are easily identifiable. This will not only make your work easier to follow, it’ll make the character’s more favourable in the eyes of the reader.
If the reader is invested in the characters, they’ll finish their tale – even if they don’t much like the plot itself. This is why, as editors, we push the importance of characterisation. It’s sort of like reality TV – people don’t watch it for the compelling story; they watch it for the personalities.
To tell a good story, you need good characters.
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS PERSONAL FLASHBACKS
Have you ever seen italics used in writing to present the reader with an effective flashback? Yes? No? Well, it looks a little something like this:
‘There was a small, dirty cloth bundle on the bottom of the tackle box. Marty tugged at the corner of the fabric, then scrambled backwards when the thing inside fell out, his heart pounding, his mind seeing Morey again, standing at his front door holding out a paper grocery bag. It had been exactly one month since Hannah’s murder.
This is for you, Martin.
What is it?
Jack’s inheritance back when he was my son. He didn’t want it; now it’s yours.
I’m not taking Jack’s inheritance, Morey… Jesus. Where did you get this?
Beautiful, isn’t it? Government Model 45-A Colt. Custom pearl handle. It’s over sixty years old. I took it off a dead Nazi who probably killed an American officer to get it. This is the most valuable thing I own, Martin. This is my legacy.’
That is a quote from ‘Live Bait’ by P.J Tracy. It’s a perfect example of the italicised flashback. It’s a great way to give the reader context without dragging them into a boring backstory that includes four-hundred counts of the word ‘had’. The author (or, authors, if you wish to be technical – look it up) uses him pulling the gun out of the closet as a trigger (no pun intended), then jumps right into the flashback with italics to show the reader what it is and how he got it. Pretty neat, right?
That’s your first technique.
It can also be a regular flashback. It doesn’t need to be one in this style, with fancy setups and formatting. A regular old flashback will get the job done just as well. At least, so long as you focus on the reason why you’re flashing back. You are flashing back to strengthen character voice, and in third person writing, flashbacks that focus on a particular character are a great place to do so.
They’re one of the only places in which you can let loose and really write in their voice. The narration can stray from that neutral sort of tone, and you as the writer can become the character, still writing in third person, but in their voice. You can do the same if a chapter only contains one character – you know the kind we mean. And you can also be brave and try to mix differing voices during conversations, giving each character their own thoughts at either side of their speech – that’s more complex, though. Proceed with caution.
[Related: Need help with your book? Receive a free book coaching sample.]
GIVE THEM A THING
You know those characters you read who always make you belly-laugh? Or the ones who make you tear up no matter what? Or the ones who make you ponder life and all of its complexities? What have you noticed about those characters? What is it that makes them stand out to you; that makes them reach into your soul and caress it in different ways?
They have a thing.
Everything in the above list is a byproduct of strong character voice. A character can only evoke those things if you fully believe in them, and that’ll only come to pass if you’re fully committed to who they are as a person. No, not as a character, as a person – the best characters aren’t characters. They’re people.
And what do people have? A thing.
Everyone has their thing; their own quirk – something they like to do, a catchphrase, an inside joke, something material; their choice of style. You should aim to make your characters (or at least the important ones) the same. Give them their own quirks. Make them human and believable – even if they aren’t human or believable. It’s humans who are reading, and so they must be able to relate.
You can fall into a trap with this one, so consider the pacing of these revelations as you move. Don’t cram everything about them in too early and overdo it. Pace your character development with care and precision. Think of it as feeding a baby: give them a small spoonful every so often until they get full. The last thing you want is for them to spit it out and ruin your (life) day.
TIME TO APPLY
You can now consider yourself a character voice pro. Use these tips to reinforce your characters, and to cement them in the heart of your reader. Thinking back to what we said about personalities on TV at the beginning, we’ll leave you with this:
You should tell a good tale. Write compelling stories by all means. That should always be the goal. But be sure that your characters are strong, too. That way, if all else fails and your plot isn’t doing it for someone, maybe your characters will.
Guest post contributed by Liam Cross. Liam has loved writing ever since he can recall. Even as a small child in primary school, the craft of writing had always been an interest of his, and he now delegates his time to novel-writing – and of course, the occasional short-story or poem here and there. His ultimate goal is to be a published author, but he can also be found training in the local gym for upcoming bodybuilding shows.
The best stories wouldn’t work without their protagonist as well as the rest of the cast of characters. Thanks Andrea. Well said.
I love “give them a thing.” Those of us who write get it – oh too well when we don’t give our characters a thing. 😉