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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Finding your character’s voice.

By Gerald Costlow

At a writing workshop I once attended, a guest lecturer told everyone, “A strong, distinctive character needs a strong, distinctive voice.”  She then went on to explain that by voice, she meant the unique way a person communicates their personality to the world, all the little mannerisms that become windows into who you are.  Once you know a person, you come to know how they’re going to react to a given situation.  You also come to know pretty much what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it.  

As I practiced and learned the craft of writing, I learned that developing a character into someone who would come alive on the page requires thought and planning and careful crafting.  Much of this is done through dialog.  Take this snippet of conversation from a story of mine, A Distant Call.  It’s from the scene when Anna first meets Jessie when she caught him fishing in her private holding pond.

She held out her hand. "Name's Anna. Anna May Sherritt. This is my land and my pond you're fishing. Don't recall seeing you around these parts before, mister."

He beamed and shook her hand, his relaxed smile returning. "Jessie Corman. Moved into a place down at the bottom of the mountain last month, so I guess we're neighbors of a sort. I'm sure sorry I was trespassing. I didn't know. I was making my rounds and doing a bit of complaining to the Lord about how a single man with an empty belly and no food at home might be tempted to steal out of the next garden he come across. Then I saw this pond overflowing with big, juicy trout, as if my prayers had been answered. I happen to carry a fishhook and line around for just such an occasion and, well... Afraid I mistook temptation for a miracle. Is it Miss or Missus Anna May Sherritt, if I'm not being too forward again?"   

What sort of voice did I give my characters here?  Anna is direct, gets the point across using few words, by nature a bit suspicious but willing to give someone a chance to explain themselves before she cuts loose on them.  It’s what one might expect, considering her background.  She gets two lines of dialog and makes her point.  Jessie is a preacher and loves to talk, and boy does that come across.  He’s about the friendliest man you ever met but there’s a solid core of values in there that guides his actions.  If his friendly nature wasn’t genuine, he might be a slick con artist, he’s that good with words.  So this man gets eight lines of dialog to get around to the entire point of his speech, which is asking her if she’s single and available.

I could have had Jessie say, “Sorry, didn’t see any no-trespassing signs.  You married?” but that’s Anna’s voice, not his.  This dynamic continues throughout the book and it helps the characters come alive.

As a writer, do you strive to give your characters a strong, unique voice?   


  1. This is a very good lesson, and well done. I do understand voice, but the concept escaped me for quite a while.
    I've had discussions with a writer friend--she has her men saying things as "your cat is gorgeous with those amber eyes flecked with gold." I'm not sure I know a man who would speak like this. Mine sure wouldn't--he'd say: I've never seen a cat like that. Or some very simple phrase.
    And I've read a WIP or two in which the characters all spoke alike--male or female--just like the author speaks.

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  3. Let's try this again. I couldn't find an edit feature, only a delete.

    You point out a common problem: that when a writer puts words in a character's mouth, we have to write realistic dialog for that person. This might include slang and broken rules of english grammar that make us grit our teeth.

  4. A very important subject, voice. I wasn't sure what voice was in my early years of writing. The toughest thing for me was to have men talk like men. I also like the individual ways in which characters can demonstrate their locale, education and personal traits just from the way they speak to other characters.
    A very good blog, Gerry.

  5. Thanks for the example of voice. I work to make my characters come alive, and I've improved a lot since I began writing.


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