Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.