Voice was always an element of writing that escaped me. It seemed like this slippery, elusive thing that I could recognize in everyone but my own. So when some of my earlier CP’s left notes that read they couldn’t hear my character’s voice, or that their voice wasn’t distinct, I wanted to yell but I don’t even know what that is!
It was one of the biggest obstacles in the manuscript I’m currently querying, BLOODWINN. My MC is nothing like me, and she’s incredibly closed off. Ranka is a blood-witch that’s a 6’2 of muscle and anger, but she’s also a desperately lonely girl that’s fiercely protective of the people she loves and is terrified of her own monstrosity. But I just…couldn’t get in her head. I couldn’t write in Ranka’s voice, and all of my readers noticed. I needed to push the POV deeper, but I couldn’t do that without finding how to make the prose sound like Ranka.
I realized I didn’t understand her voice because I didn’t understand Ranka. I mean, sure, I knew all about her as a character, but I didn’t understand who she was.
So I went back to the basics—with exercises. I’ve found a few different ways to shake out a character’s voice that both helps me better understand the character, and better understand how to write them. These might not work for everyone, but they worked well enough for me that I did the same exercises for each of my four major characters in BLOODWINN, and I’m already doing them for my major characters in my #ElementalWIP
Exercise #1: Write 100 words about what your character wants more than anything in first person, regardless of how the story is narrated.
I recommend first person because it can make getting into their head easier. This exercise was what finally put the pieces of the puzzle together for me when I was writing Ranka. I thought my angry, kickass, blood-witch would want power or revenge—but what she really wanted was acceptance, and most of those feelings were projected on to her older sister. This is what I ended up with:
I can’t take back what I did. Doesn’t she see that? Vivna keeps pushing me away, keeps throwing up more walls that I will continue to tear down until my fingers bleed. She has a right to be angry, but so do I. She took us to that place—she woke this thing inside me that devoured the life she’d been clinging to. But now she’s punishing me. She’s punishing me, when all I’ve ever wanted is to protect her. When all I’ve ever wanted is for her to love me. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I am a monster, and I never deserved the happy ending I can’t stop chasing.
Exercise #2: Write 100 words of your characters happiest memory—and then write 100 words of your character’s worst memory, both in first person.
These exercises ended up helping me so much that I rewrote both scenes in third person, and put them right into the book. These exercises do a ton of heavy lifting because understanding what makes your character’s happy and why—and what threatens to destroy them—give you an invaluable peek into their values.
Exercise #3: Question time!
Sometimes, one of the best ways to get into your character’s head is to do a Q & A that helps you figure them out.
Questions to ask about your character:
- What would they notice in other people? Make a list! Ranka is a warrior, so she tends to notice things like weapons, scars, confidence, etc. What your character notices—and what they don’t notice—will add a lot of depth to your voice. She also grew up with very little food, so it’s something she zeroes in on immediately, and she gets upset if the people around her waste food. Conversely, the princess she falls for grew up at court, and tends to immediately notice things like royal, the cut of cloth, and the facial expressions people try to hide.
- What wouldn’t they notice? Again, Ranka is a warrior , so she doesn’t notice things like specific types of cloth, jewelry, court politics, etc. She’s also constantly guarded, so she struggles to notice when people are acting genuine towards her.
- What curse words does your character use? Think about how much expletives inform you about a person. The god they swear by, the way they swear, can be a tiny peek into their world. You can usually pick one element of the world and spring off that. Example: I grew up in the American Midwest, so a lot of people swear by God. God damn it, oh God, God why?? This is an easy springboard to feed tiny pieces of your world to the reader via the way your character’s curse. Note: this doesn’t mean jump in and explain EVERYTHING ABOUT YOUR WORLD. Readers are smart enough to recognize a nugget of world-building when they see it.
- What annoys your character? Same idea as above. We all have our pet peeves, and showing your characters get irritated by specific thing will lend a layer of authenticity to their POV. I had so much fun with this one I ended up creating an entire character designed to annoy Ranka, and then he powered up and turned into a major character. *waves to Percy*
I hope these help! If you do any of these exercises, feel free to share them below–I’d love to read them!