Why Hearing Voices Is A Good Thing

One of the trickier aspects of writing, in my opinion, is locking down character voice.

For some characters, voice comes naturally. For others, it takes work–and sometimes a lot of bad writing–to nail it down.

To clarify, I don’t mean the narrative voice of the piece you’re working on, unless your story is told in first person. For pointers on developing your narrative voice, I highly recommend Amy McLane’s post from Monday.

The key to locking down character voice is hearing it. Like a whisper in your ear.

Yes, I’m suggesting you hear voices. Why not? We writers are a curious, neurotic lot anyway. We may as well add loonybats to the list as well.

For writers, hearing voices is a good thing.

When you don’t hear your character’s voice, you run the risk of writing cliché. You know the kind of writing I mean. Teens are snarky. Kids are bratty but cute. Detectives want just the facts, ma’am. Doctors use big words and have lousy bedside manner. Moms nag. Dads yell. Etc. Etc, *yawn* Sure, your teen character may be snarky, but is her voice real? Voice makes your character leap off the page or fall flat.

So, how do you find the voices of those challenging characters? Here are some tips you might find helpful.

1. Eavesdrop

One way to write authentic voice is to hear authentic voice. When you’re out shopping, at the restaurant, waiting in line, etc., eavesdrop on the conversations around you. Notice if there is someone of the same sex, age, socio-economic status as your character and tune in to how that person talks. Listen for word choice, attitude and tone. Take notes if no one’s watching.

2. Read

Read. Read. Read. Read. Study how your favorite authors write character voice. Take note of what works and what doesn’t work. Try out the same techniques you see in their works and see if you get similar results. If you don’t, try to figure out why. Did you force the voice? Did you slip into cliché? Was your word choice inauthentic? Read more and try again.

3. Hand Over the Reins

Turn to a fresh page in your notebook. Open a blank document in Word. And tell your character it’s her turn to do the writing. Even if your story will be told in 3rd person, for this writing, let your character just talk. Whatever she wants to tell you. Your job is to transcribe. Don’t force anything. Give your character space and let her speak. Odds are that as your fingers start loosening up on the keys, you’ll start hearing your character’s voice in your ear.

When you hear your character’s voice in your ear–when you recognize it like you recognize the voice of an old friend–you know you’ve got it nailed.