Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Develop Your Character through Voice

 By: Karen Albright Lin

There are endless ways in which voice affects character development. It can be created through distinctive dialogue, description, action, rhythm, narrative… The list goes on.

The narrative voice is tightly bound to the author’s voice. In her book, Tattered Legacy, Shannon Baker’s character, Abigail, “sounded distraught, but that could mean anything from suffering a papercut to losing her house in an earthquake.” Shannon could have conveyed the same information with a simple, “Abigail was upset.” But that wouldn’t give the full picture nor would it be nearly as fun.

Shannon often describes characters in short and sweet ways:

One character is “…in the homestretch of pregnancy.”

One admires another, wishing she could “capture the energy she wasted on her quick movements.”

And a “no-nonsense blast from her sent the usual ball of snakes into Nora’s gut.”

With her distinctive voice, we learn as much, if not more, about Shannon’s POV character than we do about the person she’s describing.

Everything said and observed by a POV character enlightens us. It’s all about your voice shining through the voice of your character.

Instead of your character noticing her best friend has crow’s feet, maybe she sees deep wrinkles proving her second husband had made her laugh more. 

Unfamiliar cultures and unknown worlds also call for descriptions that are not of our world. Huxley in Brave New World speaks of an alluring woman in this way: “For those milk paps that through the window bars bore at men’s eyes…” Readers might not feel as solidly set in another world if the words breasts or tits were used in this sentence.

Then there’s dialogue. Rather than simply telling his readers about his character, Huxley expresses it through conversation: “’Put your arms round me,’ she commanded. ‘Hug me till you drug me, honey…kiss me till I’m in a coma.’” 

Many of us have character bibles of some sort, written or in our heads. Some even cut photos from magazines of models who look like their characters. But some writers miss the point of keeping a bible, focusing only on surface details such as appearance, job and age. We can beef up our exploration, addressing each character’s pasts, personalities, quirks, and more. 

There are many less obvious things we can ask about our characters to bring them to life. They may not show up directly on the page but they’ll show up nonetheless… through our characters’ voices and actions.

How does your character wield his power?

What objects are more important than money to your character?

What gives your characters their strength? Each one will likely be different. To stretch your mind-muscle, think of any book or movie and answer this question for all the lead and secondary characters.

What’s her biggest temptation? How do you depict it? Subtly? Stated outright? Acted upon constantly? Is this how you would deal with it?  Do you wish it was how you could deal with it if you had more guts? Or is it handled in a way that would scare you? You—your voice—are in there somewhere.

How big is your character’s “bubble?” And what happens if someone stands too close?

What obligation does your character resent?  Describe the history of it. Remember to make it bigger in your character than it would be in your own world. The page absorbs a lot. You can always back off later.

List attributions that each character displays on the job versus at home versus with strangers.  Is she an insider? Outcast? Engaged? Moral? Rebel? Resentful? Guilty? Judgmental?

Now go a step further.

Choose an unusual power word or phrase to describe each character:
Luciferian? Crumpled? Escapee? Trashy? Battle weary? Gluttonous? Desperate? Temptress? Cerebral?

It’s likely your character will jump off the page if you use power words rather than more common/bland/abstract/boring/general descriptors.

Your voice is inextricably tangled with your characters’ voices. Use yours, in its many forms, to pump up theirs.

About the Author: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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