What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?

A good novel needs three things: interesting characters, something fascinating for them to do, and a strong voice. When I heard that, I knew it was right. But my first thought was, "If only doing that was as easy as it sounds!" My second was, "How can I get a better handle on voice?"
A good novel needs three things: interesting characters, something fascinating for them to do, and a strong voice. When I heard that, I knew it was right. But my first thought was, "If only doing that was as easy as it sounds!" My second was, "How can I get a better handle on voice?"
Characters need a strong voice

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the subtle, hard-to-pin-down subject of voice in fiction. I’m not talking about the writer’s voice, but about that of the point of view character. As a friend of mine once said, a good novel needs three things: interesting characters, something fascinating for them to do, and a strong voice. When I heard that, I knew it was right. But my first thought was, “If only doing that was as easy as it sounds!” My second was, “How can I get a better handle on voice?”

What Is Voice?

Voice is a factor of point of view. It’s created by what the POV character notices, the words in which he or she conveys it, and how he or she reacts. When a voice is strong, every word in the book reflects the POV character. In the vocabulary, sentence structure, and details, we learn, for instance, whether the character is formal or informal, respectful or irreverent, perceptive or slow-witted, suspicious or trusting.

Voice in First Person

You can find many good examples of a voicey narration in first-person fiction. For instance, look at two excerpts from very early in Megan Whalen Turner’s fabulous The Thief. From the first paragraph: I reviewed over and over the plans that had seemed so straightforward before I arrived in jail, and I swore to myself and every god I knew that if I got out alive, I would never never never take any risks that were so abysmally stupid again.

We see here that the POV character, Gen, is self-deprecating (his plans were “abysmally stupid”). Also, to me, a lot is conveyed in that repeated “never,” printed without commas so it sounds as if it should be said quickly. I hear that as young, informal, and maybe a bit panicked.

From the second paragraph: Few prisoners wore chains in their cells, only those that the king particularly disliked: counts or dukes or the minister of the exchequer when he told the king there wasn’t any money to spend.

In Gen’s list of whom the king might dislike, we see his attitude toward the king, particularly in that dig about the minister of the exchequer. These two examples show how Gen’s narration tells us as much about him as it does about the world around him.

Voice in Close Third

While the POV character’s voice seems most necessary in first person, it should appear in close third too. My example here is most of the first two paragraphs of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice.

The tall and dour non-com wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshall’s baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh and raked the group of young men before him with a gaze of dry contempt. Challenging.

All part of the game, Miles told himself. He stood in the crisp autumn breeze and tried not to shiver in his shorts and running shoes. Nothing to put you off balance like being nearly naked when all about you look ready for one of Emperor Gregor’s reviews–although in all fairness, the majority were dressed the same as himself. The noncom proctoring the tests merely seemed like a one-man crowd.

Here we see Miles’s view of the world. He notices the non-com’s gestures rather than, say, the color of the guy’s hair or the scenery behind him. Miles compares the non-com’s manner to that of a field marshall, which makes the guy’s actions seem maybe a little overblown. Miles reassures himself by seeing “contempt” and interpreting it as a challenge that’s “all part of the game.” He feels “naked,” exposed and probably nervous, no matter how much he reassures himself. To me, the comparison of the noncom to a “one-man crowd” is particularly revealing of Miles’s reaction to the scene.

In the vocabulary, sentence structure, details, and comparisons, we learn not only what’s going on but also the kind of person Miles is when he perceives it for us. No other character would have given us this scene in quite this way.

Easy vs. Hard Voice to Capture

One issue I struggle with is that I find it easiest to catch a tone that’s angry or snarky. For me anyway, it’s harder to get earnestness. Or maybe it’s just harder to make earnestness interesting. If anyone has examples of an entertaining earnest voice, I’d be really grateful to hear them. Also, I find it easy to over-rely on internal narration in creating voice, and that sometimes slows down my story. The Bujold example shows that voice can also be conveyed in the character’s descriptions of people, places, or actions too. Doing it that way is likely to move the story along better.

Thoughts on voice? Do you notice it when you read? If you write, what sorts of things have you done to create voice in your work?

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4 thoughts on “What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?”

  1. Hi, Dorothy. Your post is a fine example of what you’re looking for, earnestly seeking earnestness in an engaging, informed manner.

    In fiction I like my earnestness with a grain or two of irony. Jane Austen leaps to mind. Or Henry James, always earnest but never really.

  2. Or: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’…which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.”

    1. That is such a good example. Really most good stories have a strong narrative voice somewhere, if not from the character then from a narrator.

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