Building Better Voice

Katherine Longshore 3 Tuesday, October 18, 2011
How do you recognize and nurture a strong voice in your writing?

Donna asked the million dollar question yesterday, didn’t she?  And from it wells all the other questions.  What is voice?  How do I get voice?  What is more important, voice or plot?  The latter is the ultimate question agents and editors get asked at conferences, but seems to me to be like the chicken and the egg – how can you separate the two?  How can you have one without the other in a really great story?

What is voice?  Unfortunately, this is something I can’t answer for you.  Neither can an agent or editor.  This – voice – is something you have to figure out for yourself.  It can’t follow rules or be mapped out in a spreadsheet or learned by rote.  It has to be applied and practiced everyday.  And your voice will reflect not only your character, it will reflect you.  I’ve tried hard with Book 2 to create a narrator very different from Kitty in GILT – and I think I’ve succeeded – but I know that a distinct Katherine-ness comes across anyway.

So how do you nurture a character’s voice?  How do you practice?

As Donna said yesterday, knowing your characters really, really well definitely helps.  We have had two themed weeks on character that you can find here and here.  (A couple of the posts in these archives don't fit, but my links should include the character blogs -- just scroll through and you'll find them). These posts will tell you how we, as individuals, write character, where we find them, and some of the tools we use to get to know them better.

I, personally, put myself in my character’s shoes.  It comes from years of acting training and now comes as naturally to me as typing (which I’ve also been practicing for years – thank goodness for a mother who wanted me to take a “practical” class in high school!).  I do it often without thinking.  Usually without looking. 

But because I know my characters so well, because I live the scenes in their shoes, sometimes in a first (or second) draft, I do not always make actions and the motivation behind them entirely clear.  That’s when I have to go back through and read very, very carefully.

It’s often easier to spot in someone else’s writing than your own, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to read your manuscript and make sure that for every action there is an equal (though not necessarily opposite) reaction.  I don’t mean you have to overwrite or overexplain everything in your novel, but make sure there is clarity.  Don’t assume that the reaction says it all.

Take this as an example:  Someone slaps your narrator.  FIRST: how does it feel? Gosh, that smarts a bit.  THEN:  what does she think about it?  I totally deserved that. But what I said to provoke the slap is right and if I back down now, no one will believe me.  LAST:  What does she do?  How does she react?  Right hook to the jaw.

Look at that scene.  If you just had the action (the slap) and the reaction (the right hook), your reader can interpret the motivation behind it any way he or she pleases.  This character is hot-tempered and pugilistic.  I don’t really like her very much.  But add the motivation – I know I’m wrong, but I have to – and your reader gains a greater understanding of the character.  She enters the mind and emotion of the narrator and understands that character better. 

And that’s the whole point behind voice, isn’t it?  To give your reader a greater understanding of the narrator.  To make the reader feel more engaged with the character and the story experience.  To make your reader care. 

A strong voice can pull a reader into a story like magic.  But even a strong voice fails to work if the reader doesn’t understand the character’s actions.  To practice creating a great narrative voice, no only must you build your own relationship and knowledge of your characters, you must build that in your readers, too.  


I think knowing your characters' psychology is the key to everything. I did a degree in psychology and it only occured to me years later that I did it so I could analyse my characters better. Get them on the couch and interrogate them!
Unfortunately you can't charge £200 an hour for fictional people :(

Yes, great example with the action/thought/reaction. In reading over my MS the past few days, I've found the "thought" part sorely lacking. I think it's from all those years of "show; don't tell" (which is said so often it should really just be one word, "showdonttell").

You're right, Beth! "Showdonttell" is a mantra, and so explaining a character's thoughts does have to be handled delicately.

And Overdue, I've often wished that I had taken psychology classes in college in order to understand my characters better. What an incredible resource!

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