Creating unique character voice for your characters is essential for great fiction. Even classical writers like Tolkien writing in omniscient point of view were able to imbue their characters with enough uniqueness that you felt like they were an individual. Yes, precious. In writing styles like deep point of view where the writer needs to become invisible and let the character tell the story entirely, creating unique voices for each pov character can be challenging.
Before I turned to writing and teaching writing full time, I worked as a freelancer which roughly translated to writing anything for practically anyone. I did quite a bit of ghostwriting, usually for a president or CEO or founder of a non-profit. Oh – you thought they actually sat down and personally wrote all those direct mail campaigns and emails? 0_0
I had to completely disappear and write a piece that read like it had come from someone else. The best compliment I could get was to have a client tell me that they’d been out speaking in-person at an event and people had commented that they sounded just like their blog, newsletter, whatever. That was the job. So, what’s the key to creating a unique voice and disappearing as the writer? (You might find this post – 4 ways to become invisible with deep pov interesting.)
Catchphrases and Signature Exclamations
I would sometimes only get twenty minutes with the person I was ghostwriting for. In those short introductory meetings, I would listen for a turn of phrase — something they repeated. One client kept saying to me he was “neck deep in alligators.” Others might be stern and all-business and I gleaned more about their voice from what they didn’t say. These little snippets were amazing glimpses into personalities and priorities. I was amazed at how much I could learn about a person from even a phone conversation.
How does the way your character phrases things show their personality or priorities?
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Does your character have a signature phrase or exclamation? The phrase above tells us a lot about the character, doesn’t it. This character isn’t overly educated, but very kind and very wise. Another one that comes to mind is Claire Fraser’s, “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ” which is said in the Outlander books quite frequently (not so much on TV). She’s familiar with faith but not a strict adherent and doesn’t care who knows that, nor is she particularly lady-like given the time-period, nor is she conventional. It just says so much about her character. Or how about “You’ve got some ‘splainin to do, Lucy” by Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” from The Godfather. Or Dickens’ “Bah! Humbug!” Each of these catchphrases signature exclamations gave audiences a good deal of insight into the character and how they see the world.
You really only have to sprinkle in a few of these signature phrases or turns of speech to give credibility to character voice. Used sparingly, as you might add spice, it can be effective.
Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are perhaps the most common literary devices fiction writers use. Metaphors are more precise than similes but both can be effective. A simile is a comparison using “like” or “as” whereas a metaphor is a comparison not using like or as.
“. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
An easy way to add character voice is have the character use those things they are most familiar with as metaphors and similes to describe things. She’s angrier than a hornet in a Coke can – what would that tell you about the character who said it?
“The café was like a battleship stripped for action.” The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
“The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.” Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Just remember to use metaphors and similes sparingly, for emphasis. In the quote from Stoker above, it would’ve been easy to slip in more than one simile there, but he’s only used one for punch. Love that.
Everyone sees the world in their own unique way. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure and all that. What one person values has no value at all for another. What your character places value on shows readers what they care about, what they’re willing to fight for, die for, etc. Your character’s perspective should color every word you use. Characters can show readers what they’re seeing by describing how they feel. Are they an optimist? Are they driven – what would they find annoying or ignore? Do they have an artist’s aesthetic appreciations or more of a soldier’s utilitarian focus?
Here’s an example of filters. Sarah is the point of view character in both bits below, but I’ll give Sarah two different “filters” that will affect how she describes what’s happening. Can you tell how Sarah feels in each example?
Catherine answered the door and invited Sarah to the back patio. She followed Catherine, tucking her elbows in and hunching her shoulders to avoid touching anything. If you-break-it-you-bought-it applies here, she’ll be broke before they get to the kitchen. Sarah asked questions about the different pieces of art and furniture, more questions than necessary to be polite. She pretended to brush dirt off the patio chair before sitting. Out of time.
Sarah checked her watch again. Catherine opened the door finally and invited her to the back patio. Sarah could see the patio doors from the front entry, but Catherine insisted on taking the long way through the living room and kitchen. Catherine’s ability to decorate wasn’t going to get them out of this mess.
Some writing teachers place too much emphasis on developing your writer’s voice. I chased it for a good long time. Your voice is simply which stories you choose to tell and how you choose to tell it. Will you use profanity or not? Will your stories be fast-paced, dark, or always end happily-ever-after? Sometimes genre must dictate some of these choices, but please don’t mistake your writer’s voice for character voice. Character voice will be distinct to one character and can and will change from novel to novel. How you tell a story and which stories you choose to tell, that will have more consistency between all your work.
Want to learn more about creating unique character voice in deep point of view? This is the last week to register for Method Acting For Writers: Learn To Write in Deep Point of View. Class starts May 7th. Learn more here.