Character Voice

Here’s a good post from Writers Helping Writers: 3 Ways to Infuse Character Voice

Vocabulary and the way a character speaks are the outer layer of character voice—the icing on the cake. Instead of trying to build character voice from the outside in, get under the character’s skin by revealing how they experience and interpret the story world from the inside out. …

The three ways, incidentally, are what the character notices, their opinions about what they notice, and what actually matters to them.

What you know is inside a room will almost certainly be different from what the viewpoint character notices. What gets noticed depends on who does the noticing. Everyone sees the world through the lens of their own mindset, a potent brew of knowledge, experience, motivations, goals, preferences, hopes, fears …

People are opinionated. They have beliefs, and hopes, and prejudices about virtually everything they encounter. …

I’m not sure it’s possible to have a truly reliable first-person protagonist. That specific person is going to have, by definition, their own individual point of view, which includes, yes, their beliefs and hopes and prejudices; their expectations about how the world works and what people are like; their own feelings about how people ought to behave and the standards against which they judge everyone … all of that is indeed beneath the vocabulary and syntax that the author gives that protagonist. Same with close third; everything in the story is seen through the perceptions and attitudes and beliefs and expectations of the protagonist.

Omniscient viewpoint allows the author to step back from the protagonist(s) and, by showing the reader everyone’s perceptions, attitudes, believes, and expectations, prevents the voice of any one character from pervading the narrative. Of course, if you take that far enough, the omniscient narrator then takes on life and acquires a distinctive voice too.

Syntax and vocabulary do matter, however. This is a somewhat different topic, or a different aspect of the same topic, but I was thinking about that recently, because I heard someone comment (as seems to happen constantly) that no one these days uses “whom.” Yes, we do, and you know who particularly uses “whom” in their casual, ordinary conversation? Your super-formal characters in your novels, that’s who. All mistakes and non-formal locutions become jarring if placed in the mouth of a character who ought to, and usually does, speak with a formal style. They are jarring because they do not match the established voice of the character or because they prevent that character from establishing a credible voice in the first place.

If the author can’t use formal syntax herself, she will never be able to write a character who is convincingly formal. That’s a painful limitation to impose on yourself, which is why authors ought to learn how to use “whom” correctly; and the subjunctive mood; and “less” versus “fewer,” and whatever other features we expect in formal English and don’t necessarily expect in less formal contexts or from informal speech.

… and while on this topic, I will just say that the worst offender is incorrect “him and I” constructions. I am thinking right now of multiple examples of important characters who should not make that kind of mistake, but do, and neither the author, the copy editors, the proofreaders, or the beta readers caught it. Or if someone caught it, they didn’t think it was important.

Wrong. It is important. The author should know how to shift into formal locutions no matter how casual speech is put together in everyday life and no matter how less formal characters might speak. Mistakes like this can do brutal damage to the voice of a character who ought not make this kind of error.

I therefore nominate this specific mistake as Top Mistake To Make Sure You Fix If You Are Writing A Novel. Here is a post about this error. Here’s another. And another. If you’re going to put this kind of error into the mouth of a character, fine, but you should do it on purpose because that’s the way that character ought to speak, not because you yourself don’t know the correct form.

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8 thoughts on “Character Voice”

  1. The fact that I don’t have examples crowding to mind makes me wonder if I just read past this error, or rapidly forget about it after noticing it. Because I’m pretty sure I don’t use that particular informality in speech, and hardly less sure that the authors I’m reading aren’t exclusively finicky about their pronouns.

  2. The ‘whom’ errors and ‘him and I’ and getting more common and they’re like nails on a chalkboard to me.

    Another thing about speech registers such as formal and less formal – socially adept characters can switch on the fly to what is appropriate for whatever impression they want to make, or to fit whoever they’re speaking with. That is also important for writers to keep in mind – that you don’t speak to the King the way you speak to a servant, or to your friend. Or someone who defaults to casual suddenly going calm and formal ought to mean something. That sort of thing really fleshes out characterizations whether or not the reader consciously notices it.

    Lastly, the Teen was grumbling about a failure of speech in a game mod for Skyrim (Elder Scrolls). The vocabulary was right, the register of formality was right – what was wrong was the sentiment.
    The character had been granted the title of Thane in a setting where it means something: land ownership, certain sort of authority, certain privileges. The speech called it a useless title. That, too, is a failure by the writer, to not understand what is important in the setting.

  3. I’m sure this is off topic- but I particularly like the language in the Death’s Lady series. There is a lovely rhythm to the speech and thought patterns of your characters who are not from modern day America. ‘A light hand on the rein and the leash and the jess; little recourse to the whip or the spur or the goad.’ Kuomat’s pov? So lovely. Also, the metaphors that all the characters recognize- ‘it’s foolish to step into the dark kingdom before Lord Death lays his hand on your shoulder.’ I like that, and also when Mitereh explains to Emel that he may not stray from the path that he has now set foot on. The formal language and the consistent imagery and the religious overtones make the whole world believable.

  4. I remember a story in which two warriors were traveling through wilderness. No description.

    I knew they wouldn’t gush like a botanist or a gardener, but they should at least have noticed what effect the terrain would have on fights. Especially given that the world had monsters in the wild.

  5. Elaine, YES YES YES. All of that is important for the author to get right, whether many or most readers consciously notice it or not. It feels right or wrong even if readers don’t specifically pause and think “Dammit, it should be him and ME.” Which, of course, some of us actually do.

    Mary, right! The characters need to be IN the setting, and while they may not think about the setting much, the author should not allow the setting to turn into a “white room.”

    Alison, you are more than welcome to go off topic in that direction! Thank you! That’s exactly what I was going for: a syntax that says You Are Not In Kansas. And yes, a deep history that the reader doesn’t know much about, but the characters do.

  6. Who speaks formally these days? Me. Despite living in a college town, I get strange looks all the time because I switch registers from ‘informal farmer’ to ‘properly correct English’ without realizing – over the last few years particularly.

    I second Alison – I also love the formal tone in Death’s Lady, and appreciate that the descriptions are colored by the character’s views on the world. It is one of those things that adds so much depth to a story. In Tuyo as well, the differences in modes of formality between the Ugaro and the Lau help to emphasize their separate cultures.

  7. I agree with E.C. – I love the use of the formality for the Ugaro speakers and informal/modern speech for the Lau (I’m wondering if Ryo’s darau is good enough by now that he might risk a contraction occasionally?) I was struck by the difference in Keraunani – so many more ‘gottens’ (which inevitably stand out for a non-US reader; no criticism intended).

  8. I know “gotten” is a US thing, but what can I say? “Got” sounds a bit strange and daring to me in that usage, even though I’ve read it often enough in books from the UK.

    And I don’t know about contractions! I’ve been wondering that in the back of my mind, but it’s such an Ugaro thing not to use them, I may declare that Ryo just isn’t ever going to. But I agree that really, someone immersed in Lau culture probably would, eventually, so I may change my mind.

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