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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You Don't Sound like Yourself Today: Character and Voice

Laura Ingalls Wilder, SueBE and SueBE's son.  Each has a distinct voice.

I laughed out loud as I read the e-mail from my sister. Someone had cloned by husband’s e-mail addy and sent her a chatty message. “I knew it wasn’t him unless he’d a personality transplant.” Her clue? Because it included chit chat, the voice was all wrong.

Mom’s, wives and women in general are Miss Marple when it comes to the voice’s of those we know. We can tell when they don’t feel well, have bad news, or are simply repeating what someone else said.

Yet when it comes to our characters, we struggle to find their voices. In part, this is because our characters tend to sound like us. To shake things up, we need to observe how different people say the same thing.

Here are three comments on a manuscript. One from me. One from my husband. One from my son. Can you tell which is which?

  1. “?”
  2. “I’m not sure what you mean here.”
  3. “You don’t have to listen, but if you want to sell this...”

  1. ? My husband. Mr. Not-Chatty. Simple and straightforward. If he’s feeling particularly effervescent that day it might be expanded to, “This doesn’t make sense.”
  2. "I’m not sure what you mean here.” That’s me. I’ve been told that I’m a somewhat aggressive person, I try not to stampede over the top of someone when I comment on their work.
  3. “You don’t have to listen, but if you want to sell this...” My son. Mr. Self-Confident. He’s especially brassy when he’s commenting on my work for kids. Since he’s my target audience, he fancies himself an expert.

There is a reason that we each sound the way that we do and it all comes down to who we are.

When you’re having troubles finding a character’s voice, think about the people you know. Is there someone who might sound like your character? What makes this person’s voice distinct? Perhaps it is her vocabulary or a pet phrase. It might have something to do with her vocation, education, birth region or favorite hobby. All of these things influence word choice.

Now consider your character. Think about the ways that your character is like this person. Maybe they are both outgoing, smart, or analytic. Now, think about how they are different. Perhaps your character was born in a different time or place. Someone with a third grade education will sound different from someone with a masters even if they are both intelligent and outgoing.

Last but not least, noodle over your character’s story. What does she want to say more than anything else? Spend about five minutes listening to her tell her tale. Then write it down.

If you've listened well, you’ll find yourself hearing your character’s voice like never before.



  1. This is a very good explanation of voice--I love the idea of taking the people in your family and showing how they would say something about the same piece of work. You could do that about events, too. If you were interviewing my family about Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo, my stepson, a boy of few words, would say, "Awesome!" I would say, "It was so beautiful and I can't wait until next year." My hubby: "Sure, it was fun." I think this approach could help some understand voice!

  2. Using the real-life every day example with your only family was a really effective way to make this point.

    Margo Dill: I'm laughing because I am imaging this sort of thing if my husband and I went to Harry Potter world. One of us would be saying, "oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." And one of us would be bouncing on his toes and saying, "It's getting kind of late, don't you think we should go now?"

  3. Melissa,
    With us, the one bouncing on his toes would be the most enthusiastic, not that I could transcribe his comments which would be coming at me a mile-a-minute.

    For me, voice is always hard to pinpoint when it is done well. When there's a problem? That I can discuss.



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