Voice: Writing and Editing a Strong Character Voice

Editing voice

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My favorite element of writing is voice. So I’m reaching into my personal toolkit for some tips on how I write and edit voice. 

character voice and woman's eye

Distinguish between character voice and authorial/narrative voice.

If you’re writing in first person, character voice and narrative voice are going to overlap. But as you introduce more characters into the story, their voices will be different.

If you’re writing in third person limited, there is a difference between the character (think of the character as the eyes through which we see the action) and the narrative voice (the movie camera inside the character’s head). The narrative voice comes from the person running the movie camera, tilting it this way and that, zooming in and out, panning around as the character goes through their day. The narrative voice chooses which scenes to focus on and which to skip.

Now, the narrative voice uses the lens or filter of the character’s experience – we see the action through the character’s eyes after all – but the narrative voice is NOT the same as the character voice.

I mentioned removing thick accents and colloquialisms from the narrative and only leaving it in dialogue.

Why?

The narrative voice doesn’t have an accent. The character does.

And the character speaks through dialogue. We hear through the character’s ears, and we’re getting their internal monologue, but when you hear your thoughts, you don’t hear your accent. To you, your voice sounds perfectly flat and reasonable. When someone else hears your voice, they hear an accent no matter where you’re from or to whom you’re speaking.

What happens if you leave accent in the narrative?

It becomes overwhelming and feels like you’re trying too hard. Dialect, accents, and colloquialisms are also very hard to pull off in a story because they vary so widely from region to region. And heavens forbid you try an accent that you’re not native in, or at least, didn’t heavily research because your readers will know and will turn around and let you know how badly you murdered their mother tongue.

I’m a Southerner. North Carolina born and bred. And not just that but the small town, rural, tobacco-farm, final g-droppin’, drawl things out in twice as many syllables type of Southern. My pet peeve is getting a story from a Midwesterner or New Englander trying to replicate my accent. My internal Julia Sugarbaker combines with Scarlett O’Hara plus a dash of salty sailor and next thing you know I’ve hit the reject button.

Do not screw around with unfamiliar accents. A vacation or two doesn’t count.

If you want to add a dialect to a character voice, make one up.

Be inventive.

Use words, phrases, and patterns of speech that are familiar to you but exaggerate the usage.

Be consistent.

When I’m writing a heavy voice (this is my term for a voice that’s unusual or thick with a dialect), I have to write in long stretches. Otherwise, the voice comes out feeling choppy. It’s almost like I need a warm up when I sit back down to the page to get my mind back into that vocal mindset, the right flow of the words, the cadences and nuances that make a voice come to life.

Details matter in voice.

Consider the words you’re using. Just like in everything else, be precise. The style might be loose and slung out but choose your words with care.

The way a character curses reflects a lot about them, about their culture and what’s valuable, about taboos.

Think about the curse words you use most often. What do they center around? Bodily functions? Sex? Why is that? What does that say about both your personal views and about your cultural and moral upbringing?

Now apply that your characters and your world-building.

In the same way, some characters will deliberately not swear but use words of blessing and praise. Same thing. What’s important to this culture?

Look at the details of the world. Are your island characters cooking with iron pots and discussing how they killed giant dragons with swords? Well, where did they get the iron for the pots and swords? Is your mountain top priest wearing a necklace of seashells and invoking the sea gods?

Voice gives life to your story, but it also sets you up for tiny plot holes.

The trick is to not think of these plot holes as problems. Meaning, don’t water down your vocabulary and dialogue to avoid answering these questions.

Instead, make your world-building richer and fuller to answer these issues.

The more you limit yourself, the more conflict you create your characters, and the more exciting your world will be.

Questions? Let me know in the forums.

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