An Utterly Electrifying Guide to Finding a Character’s Voice
When you’re finding a character’s voice, you’re basically Dr. Frankenstein trying to source the electricity that will bring the monster to life.
You may start with a big pile of intriguing character traits. You’ve figured out your character’s physical appearance, their goals and fears, their virtues and flaws. You may have even worked out their character arc.
But it’s your character’s voice that jolts the creature to life, transforming all these loose parts into a living, breathing being your reader can’t stop thinking about.
At least that’s how it goes when you know how to find a character’s voice. Fortunately, you’re about to. I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know about zapping your characters to life.
By the end of this article, you’ll have learned how to:
- Tap into different tools to create your character’s voice
- Design an authentic voice built around your character’s personality and background
- Add variety and nuance to your character’s voice by adapting for emotions, motivation, and secrets
- Practice and perfect the art of finding a character’s voice
If that’s what you came for, let’s get into it.
What is Character Voice, Exactly?
Character voice refers to the distinct ways in which your character communicates with others. And with themselves, actually. Internal monologues count.
Your goal is to establish a distinct voice that, among other things, fits your character’s:
- Defense mechanisms
- Coping mechanisms
- Emotional state
You’ll construct your character’s voice using these tools:
Simply put, diction refers to the words your character uses. What’s their go-to linguistic style?
Do they keep things formal? Like to use big words? Embrace slang or colloquialisms? How do their words signal their age, education, profession, background, or even ambitions?
Pacing and Rhythm
Long, lyrical sentences. Rushed fragments. Ecstatic observations that bubble up one right after the other with barely a breath in between.
The rhythm of your character’s speech says a lot about their personality and state of mind.
By this I mean the way your character actually sounds when they speak. Is their voice thin and melodic? Low and gravelly? Surprisingly high-pitched?
The sound of your character’s voice might match their personality perfectly or it could be an interesting contradiction. Either way, it’s another tool in your belt.
Body language can convey personality, reflect emotion, and even nod to the way your character has been trained to present themselves.
Your character’s physicality can also do a lot of heavy lifting when you’re working with subtext. “Wow, what a loser” reads very differently depending on whether the character saying it is laughing and pointing or flirtatiously tucking their hair behind their ear.
Tone is often confused with voice, so I’ll simplify this for you:
Your character’s tone is their attitude about the subject they’re discussing. For example, your character’s tone could be resentful, moody, elated, curious, etc.
Tone can be conveyed using any of the tools above. Often, these tools work together. In the “Wow, what a loser” example, diction (“loser”) and body language (pointing and laughing) create a bullying tone.
It should be noted that your character’s tone is part of their voice, but it’s not a consistent part of their voice. It’s likely to change in different circumstances.
Okay, so you know what character voice is and how to bring it out in your writing. Now let’s talk about how you can go about finding a character’s voice.
Let’s start with the obvious. Who your character is will determine the way they communicate.
Just look at this line of dialogue from Olive Kitteridge’s titular character. (For context, Olive is addressing her husband and referring to a woman she overheard in the hallway.)
“I’m ready to go home. Though I expect you’ll want to stay until the last dog dies. Don’t I hate a grown woman who says ‘the little girls’ room.’ Is she drunk?”
Hello, Crankypants Grumpmonster! Here we have:
- Short, direct sentences (Rhythm!)
- A stated preference transformed into a challenge by the sentence that follows it (Tone!)
- A stream of accusations and complaints leaving no room for response (Rhythm!)
- Folksy regional saying that’s also pretty dang dark (Diction!)
It’s pretty clear that Olive is someone who says what she thinks and has a beef with the whole wide world.
So what about your character? Based on their personality, would you describe their communication style as:
- Light and lyrical?
- Dry and sarcastic?
- Clipped and direct?
- Slow and moody?
- Chatty and anxious?
- Direct and aggressive?
Let personality be your first guide for finding a character’s voice. Then turn your attention to their background.
My SoCal husband once asked me to translate a t-shirt he saw in a Minnesota gift shop. “Ope! Just gonna sneak by ya here.”
“That’s Midwestern for ‘excuse me,’” I explained.
Now, the most Midwestern aspect of the phrase wasn’t the “ope.” It was the apologetic tone no one asked for and the use of seven words to say what could be communicated in two. When Midwesterners have a choice between being nice and being clear, we usually choose nice.
I bring this up because a lot of new writers mistake colloquialisms for an authentic representation of a cultural voice.
In those writers' hands, a fictional me might demonstrate Midwestern-ness through excessive “ope”-ing.
And sure, I “ope.” But I’d never say “Ope! I want pizza!” I’d say, “I wouldn’t mind ordering pizza if you’re up for it,” fully believing I’d just made an impassioned plea.
That’s not to say you can’t use accents and culture-specific slang in your writing. You just don’t want to stop there. Examine your character’s cultural, regional, religious, educational, and socioeconomic background, considering things like:
- What does “successful communication” mean for this person?
- How would someone of this background be likely to address elders? Authority figures? Peers?
- Are there any topics, jokes, or words that would feel off-limits for this character?
- How would this person demonstrate respect (or disrespect) for a conversation partner? Would they try to be brief or engaging? Formal or friendly?
If you’re writing a character from a marginalized community that is not your own, work with a sensitivity reader. They’ll help you avoid harmful or boring stereotypes.
And remember that, while background matters, no community is a monolith. You still need to give your character a voice that is unique to them. So let’s keep at this.
Motivation and Goals
How does your character use their voice strategically?
Fun question, right? The way we communicate and present ourselves is often influenced by what we want to achieve in that exchange. Or what we want to achieve in life.
And whether your character wants love or security or a puppy, that desire translates into one big question when it comes to voice:
“How does this person want to be perceived?”
A career-obsessed lawyer might believe their ticket to success is to build a reputation for being intimidating. A force to be reckoned with.
So they deliberately talk over people’s heads. They’re blunt and abrupt to demonstrate how busy they are. And (my personal pet peeve), they champion “brutal honesty.”
So tap into what drives your character. What are they trying to achieve, avoid, or escape? How would that affect their voice?
Subtext is the meaning behind your character's actual words—a meaning that is not explicitly expressed.
Look at this example from A Man Called Ove:
“I’m not asking for brain surgery. I’m asking you to drive a car… Some of the greatest twits in world history have sorted out how it works. And you will as well.”
And then he utters seven words, which Parvaneh will always remember as the loveliest compliment he’ll ever give her.
“Because you are not a complete twit.”
Now, the author spells the subtext out for us. But by this point in the story, the line about the compliment is only necessary for communicating Parvaneh’s perspective. We know Ove’s voice. He’s just spent 237 pages declaring everyone in the world an idiot. We can see that the ice is thawing.
So what things does your character have a difficult time expressing directly? Affection? Anger? Desire? Jealousy? How do their true feelings come through in their voice?
Speaking of hiding things…
Triggers, Defenses, and Secrets
This is where finding a character’s voice gets really fun.
We human beings have a fascinating ability to transform our voice to act as a shield when needed.
We might start using shorter sentences or give vague answers when we have something to hide. Or maybe we get louder to convey confidence when we actually feel terrified.
What’s great about this often unintentional reflex is that it looks a little different for each person. As you work on finding your character’s voice, ask yourself:
- What words, actions, or events would trigger this person’s defenses?
- How do they speak and carry themselves when they’re angry? Afraid? Insecure? Hurt? Hiding a secret?
- What does their go-to defense mechanism say about their relationship with fear, pain, and anger?
- Is there ever a situation where they feel free to express negative emotions directly? What does that look like?
When you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to create a sense of consistency in your character’s voice, even as their tone changes.
Remember the example from A Man Called Ove a couple sections ago—how “not a complete twit” was high praise coming from him?
Here’s a younger, not-yet-hearbroken Ove beefing it on his first date with his future wife:
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, shamedfaced, and kicked his chair leg a little, before adding in such a low voice that it could hardly even be heard: “I just wanted to know what it felt like to be someone you looked at.”
This still sounds like the same guy. His sentences are brief, exact, and resist emotional displays. But there’s a tenderness and vulnerability here that we don’t see with Parvaneh.
In this scene, he’s in love. By the time he meets Parvaneh, he’s angry at the world. Everything he communicates—even affection—is communicated through the frame of bitter disappointment.
How can you track your character’s emotional evolution through their voice? How would someone with your character’s background, personality, and motivations communicate in times of joy? Rage? Embarrassment?
Find those answers, and you’re well on your way to turning your mess of character parts into a breathing, evolving human being.
Finding a Character’s Voice and Nailing It
Now you’re an expert in finding a character’s voice. Your only remaining task is to put these ideas to work on the page. Easy peasy.
Just kidding. Writing a consistent, distinctive character voice takes work no matter how well you understand the concept of finding a voice.
In all honesty, the most effective way to nail your character’s voice is to write a lot. You’ll probably find that your character reads a little flat or clichéd in the early pages of your draft. Then, by the end, they’re a multi-dimensional person with an original voice.
That’s because you know them better by page 293 than you did on page one.
To get acquainted with them faster, practice your character’s voice outside your novel. Write pages from your character’s diary or rewrite a scene in their voice. You can also use our character interview questions to explore their psyche and hone their voice at the same time.
Also be sure to read their voice out loud. This means both their dialogue and their thoughts.
Reading out loud should be part of your self-editing process, anyway, but it’s especially valuable when you’re refining a character’s voice. It helps you hear their tone and tempo better, as well as catch anything that feels unnatural or out of character.
(Fun fact: Dabble has a Read to Me feature so you can close your eyes and listen as your manuscript is read back to you.)
Finally, as you work on finding a character’s voice, remember:
Dabble is Always Here for You
And if you’re writing your book in Dabble, you can keep all your character voice exercises in Story Notes so they’re right at your fingertips as you draft your novel.
If you don’t already use Dabble, no problem! Click here to snag free, fourteen-day access to all Dabble’s Premium features. No credit card required.
Now time to put your fingers to your keyboard and bring this monster to life.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.