Taking your Voice from Vacant to Verdant!
Howdy folx! Have you been gardening? Napping? Eating cookies? Whatever your self-care looks like, KEEP DOING IT. I've found so much joy in watching the seeds I planted in May bloom into gorgeous flowers. I go out and inspect them every day, I talk to them, I've waged war against the beetles and welcomed the first bumble bee (I hope Mr. Bee tells all his friends!) Behold my flowers!!!
Writing wise, I've finally started to earnestly draft a new project (well, kinda new, it's Harpy Girls book II) and I'm still figuring out some plot and character things, but I feel better about it than I ever have and more confident about how it's all going to play out. Harpy Girls the original (but new and improved!) is out with betas. And I've started to get some feedback!
Which brings me to today's post about voice (plz appreciate my alliterative title!) Voice in writing is one of those elusive things that's hard to pin down with a standard definition. And in writing, you have your author voice and you have your character voice(s). Author voice is the *YOU* in the story, the idea that across all your works, there is a thread that binds them all together. Someone could pick up your work and without having seen your name on the cover, immediately think it was yours. The same way you hear a new song and you're like, oh, that sounds like...and 99% of the time you're right!
Character voice is the words, tone, sentence structure, etc, (the diction) of how they speak and think. You want your characters voice to be strong so that if you pulled a random bit out, it can be instantly identifiable by the reader whether or not it has a dialogue tag or name attached to it. This becomes even more important when you have a multi-POV book. Your reader needs to be able to know which POV the chapter is from within the first few sentences of a chapter in order to orient themselves.
I have never not written a multi-POV manuscript. When I write the zero draft, all my characters sound the same. And they don't even sound cool in their sameness, it's a very cliched, basic type of writing because I'm still figuring my characters out. By the end, there might be a few moments where their personalities shine through bright and clear, but for the most part, it's something I tackle in revisions.
On my latest version of Harpy Girls, I worked really hard to make each of my POV characters standout. I had several readers of the previous version point this out, especially in my Edria chapters. She's got the biggest personality of my 3 POV girls and so I set out to really dig into making her voice pop. And I got closer, but I still need to do more. More for all three of them, not just Edria.
And it's frustrating. Mostly because I, as the creator of these characters, am like, HOW ARE THEY SIMILAR? THEY'RE SO DIFFERENT??? But there in lies the rub, my readers don't have access to my brain (thank the gods) and so while they're clearly delineated in my mind, it's not coming through strong enough on the page. I need to dig deeper and really make each one stand out. This is EXCELLENT feedback. Not the feedback I was hoping for, but still excellent. This, dear friends, is why good betas and CPs are worth their weight in gold.
So what do I do to accomplish this, to make each voice stand alone as though they were the mainest of main characters? Here are my 3 main go-to strategies:
1) Know their background: You might not include a lick of backstory in your manuscript, but that character you created had to come from somewhere and YOU need to know where. Get as detailed as you like, but you definitely need to understand the basics. What was their family like? Did they have siblings or were they the only child? Was extended family involved? And what was that relationship like? What is their socio-economic status? Different income groups communicate differently at the family level, both in how and when they communicate and in what they communicate about. Billionaire families might talk about the ski trip they're taking to Switzerland or hiring a new tennis coach. Middle income families are more likely to talk about grocery shopping or saving up for a family vacation to the beach. Lower income families tend to communicate more about immediate needs-did you do your homework? Why aren't you watching your brother? Did you clean your room? Each of these is predicated on the intricacies and nuances of their daily life (yes, these are basic caricatures and no one identifying element makes someone a monolith and there are always outliers!) The point is that you need to know the words, phrases, and sentences structure your characters grew up with and make it consistent. The Nurse in Romeo & Juliet is a fantastic example of this. It's made clear she's a low class servant. She makes horribly inappropriate jokes and when she does try to sound smart, she consistently uses the wrong words.
For Harpy Girls, I worked to make their life as orphans evident in how they process and prioritize their world. They're both cautious about forming relationships with others and only count on and trust each other--the rest of the world is full of people they use to get what they want, but not form strong relationships with. And when they want something, they take it regardless of whether it's morally right or who else it might hurt. In the beginning Valen steals a wallet and shows no remorse. Her life has always been about seizing an opportunity and making her own path forward, so this helps to build that aspect of her character.
2) How do they see the world? This is one I always struggle with and it ties into Tip #1 because it's based in what their backstory is. But, what is the specific way they frame their thoughts and responses? What are words or phrases they use consistently?
What metaphors would they use? Your characters who's a competitive swimmer and lover of water (or a mermaid!) might always use words, metaphors, and ideas related to water and sea life. Whereas your futuristic sci-fi space epic character might do more star/plant/sky based though processes. In Harpy Girls, Edria sees things either as a fight, food, or a party. In the example here, she's going with the party metaphor.
I like to really sit with my character and put them through a lot of what if situations that will never actually do or experience on page. It's how I distract myself when I'm board. I'll put my characters into whatever situation I'm currently in: waiting in a doctor's office! grocery shopping! doing yard work! picking out a puppy! (okay, I wouldn't be board while picking out a puppy, but putting my characters through that--and realizing that one of them is not a dog person--was kind of traumatic!) The point is, once you home in on what your character prioritizes, you can make their voice stand out because it's consistent and it tracks with the rest of their character. The decisions we make about little things are typically microcosms of how we approach the big stuff in our life. The same applies to our characters.
3) Action! My third tip is let their actions speak for them. This goes for both habits and tics and for how they react to different stressors in their environment. Deciding how they physically respond to things is going to tie in with the other two--it's all linked together to create that deep dive into voice that really draws a reader into a story. Again, how they've lived and experienced life is going to affect what they do. For Edria, the majority of her life has been spent on the streets and she's learned that punching first is the best way to survive, she has a short temper and is always ready to swing. Valen on the other hand, is anxious and nervous. Her first reaction is to flinch and run away (she'll be trying to solve the puzzle as she runs, but she is absolutely running away). So choose actions that not only fit the character's emotion for that scene, but also fit into who they are and how they think. What are the repetitive actions for your character? Do they rub their wrist? Jig their leg? Roll their eyes? Pick at their clothing?? And why do they do that? How does it tie into their past and does it match their diction or does it counteract it? What I mean is, does the action fit the mood and diction of the character or does it offer a cool balance of opposites? There's a lot of things to play with here!
Edria's body language is aggressive. She's quick to curl her hands into fists, or shake her body like she's loosening up for a fight. She uses her height and stature to intimidate. Valen messes with her ponytail when she's being deceitful or manipulative:
(And if you go to the first snippet I posted where Valen steals the wallet, you see her do one of repetitive motions: brushing the tattoo on her wrist. She does this when she needs to focus and remind herself of her goals)
I hope these three tips help you in developing voice in your stories! I think I have a solid start on providing distinct voices, but it's definitely one of those things I know I can dig deeper on and improve on it and make them even better--plus I added a POV to this latest revision and I know I have to tease her voice out more. As always, your mileage may vary! Take what helps and leave what doesn't! Drop a comment with tips or methods you use to help the voice of your story flourish!! Thanks for reading!
Bellamy sends all his voicey writing vibes 💜💜💜