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Writing

How to Write Unique Character Voice

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 14, 2020 • 4 min read

In the real world, everybody has their own unique personality, worldview, and manner of speaking. So too should the characters in a novel. A strong character voice is the means by which your characters express themselves and interact with the world around them.

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What Is a Character’s Voice?

Character voice refers to the unique way that a character in a novel or short story expresses themselves outwardly and inwardly. A character’s voice can be communicated through a character’s personality, a character’s thoughts, and the way that character sounds. Fiction writers can create unique voices for different characters through a narrative point of view, spoken dialogue, or through other characters’ perceptions.

How to Express Character Voice in Your Writing

As a writer, there are many ways to use your own writing style and authorial voice to convey character voice. Here are some common ways that authors express character voice:

  1. First-person point of view: First-person narrative voice allows the author to explore the voice of the main character by telling the story entirely from their perspective. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield serves as the first-person narrator, and as a result, the whole story is inflected with his own unique voice of disaffection and rebellion.
  2. Stream of consciousness narration: Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique where the thoughts and emotions of the narrating character are written such that a reader can track their thought process and fluid mental state. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the author uses stream of consciousness to give each of her characters distinct voices and points of view.
  3. Unreliable narrator: An unreliable narrator is a narrating character who withholds information, lies to, or misleads the reader, casting doubt on the narrative as a whole. In creative writing with an unreliable narrator, the character voice is marked by deception and exaggeration, which in turn informs our understanding of the character. In Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, the titular character’s tales of becoming a ping pong champion and NASA astronaut are not necessarily believable, but his earnest unreliability allows the reader to forgive his possible embellishments.
  4. Third-person omniscient: In a third-person omniscient piece of writing, the omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. This means that the author can express character voice via the internal thoughts and points of view of any character within the piece of literature. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the reader is given full access to the thoughts, backstory, and life experiences of Elizabeth and the characters around her.
  5. Third-person limited: Third-person limited point of view has a neutral narrator who is not privy to the characters’ thoughts or feelings. The narrator presents the story with an observational tone. With this perspective, character development and voice is expressed exclusively through the action and dialogue of the characters.
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4 Tips for Developing Character Voices

Character voice can shine through via dialogue, intonation, and body language. Here are some writing tips to help you develop your character’s voice:

  1. Focus on dialogue. Dialogue defines your character’s voice, establishes their speech patterns, and outwardly reveals their innermost thoughts. Realistic and credible dialogue is an essential element of writing a compelling character, and your character’s dialogue should sound like it’s coming from a real person. In order to accomplish that, you should gather inspiration from real life. Spend time in parks or coffee shops, paying attention to how real people talk. Record your own voice during casual conversation, and listen closely for any vocal tics or affectations. The ability to write credible dialogue in many types of voice will help your characters feel grounded and convincing.
  2. Be specific when choosing how your characters sound. When writing fiction, one of the best ways to convey character voice is through the way they speak. A vivid description of a character’s speaking voice can be as illuminating as their word choice or sentence structure. If a character has a raspy speaking voice, we might assume that they’re older or in poor health. If a character has a commanding, strong voice, the reader can infer that this person is boisterous and confident. Make sure your own writing is filled with detailed descriptions of the way that your characters speak.
  3. Pay attention to body language. A character’s voice is more than what they say. Body language can convey just as much about a character as their literal speaking voice. How does your character walk? What is their posture like? How does their face react to bad news? When they’re on a fancy dinner date, do they sit differently than when they’re by themselves playing video games? Answering these questions can be as integral in determining a character’s voice as the literal words they speak.
  4. Make sure your author’s voice is separate from your character voices. An author voice is the summation of that writer’s own particular style, point of view, attitudes and tones. Though it’s not uncommon for a character in a novel to mimic the writer’s voice, you should be sure to include characters whose voices do not reflect your own. In the real world, not everyone shares your attitudes, opinions, or manner of speaking, and the world of your novel should mirror that diverse reality.

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