This will be an odd one in the writing guides because it’s not just for novel writing, but also for articles and blogging. It’s about Voice. In articles and non-fiction this is the author’s voice, the quirks, slang and turns of phrase that make readers quickly identify who the writer is without even looking for a name. For example, if you were to read articles by game critics Jim Sterling or Ben Croshaw you would quickly realise they’re the authors as each man has his own way of describing things, of using (and sometimes abusing) the language to explain their points.
On my end, I can only hope that you get some of my humour in my writing, perhaps a bit of my bitterness or awe at certain topics and ideas. But for the most part, the complaining and moaning should be enough to say, “This is Kevin’s work.” It’s either that, the repeated use of “funnily enough” or the overall lack of passive voice in sentences, because I don’t like it.
When you write articles, your voice is the most important thing. Articles without voice are empty. They have nothing for the reader to connect to in any meaningful way. By default, any opinion you give imbues your article with a bit of yourself, a small part of your voice. As you continue to write, you’ll develop your own favourite phrases, your go-to slang even, and slowly it’ll ‘build’ your voice. I’m not a fan of purely investigative articles because as a rule they’re fact-heavy and don’t have much of the author in them, so they drown out the author’s voice. The format itself is conducive to smothering the voice as it encourages authors to speak of themselves in the third person: “The author feels/thinks,” for example. At best, these kinds of pieces will only offer the author a small window to give out their opinions, a tiny moment to show their humanity in an otherwise robotic piece. I’m not saying the articles can’t be extremely well written, the quality is not in question, but there’s nothing for me to find there, not on a personal level at least. There’s a wall of facts and quotes separating me from the author’s voice.
Imagine if you met someone and they kept quoting others, and regaling you with trivia but without showing anything of their personality, of their hopes, fears and ideals. That is how I feel when I can’t ‘hear’ the author’s voice.
When writing fiction, the voice is not necessarily your own, but it’s still of monumental importance.
If an omniscient narrator is telling your story, then it could be your voice telling things, or you could construct a new character, different from yourself to tell the tale.
If you’re writing from a first person perspective, then it has to be the character’s voice. If they complain and moan as much as I do, then you must reflect that in their voice, in how they tell the story.
But unlike your voice when writing articles, which can change with every piece as your writing skill grows and you evolve, a character’s voice shouldn’t change very often, not unless something happened to them to change their outlook on life or even education. Consistency is extremely important with fiction characters.
Many times I’ve come across first-person narratives where the characters have a bigger vocabulary in their narration than they do in their conversations. If you have a protagonist without any education, then you shouldn’t use complicated or even archaic words in his narration of the story unless you show the readers where he might’ve picked up the words. Maybe he has a word calendar, with big fancy words for his to learn. Maybe she has a dictionary obsession. The point is, unless you show the readers why this character has ‘access’ to that vocabulary, don’t use it. Synonyms are particularly dangerous. You might think “appendage” is fairly normal, but there’s a real chance depending on your character’s education that they might not know what the word means.
As the author, you might not think too much of it, you might use synonyms freely, but when you read your novel back during editing, or when your proofreaders do it, they’ll notice that your character speaks with a much more refined language than in conversations.
I’ve always been a firm believer that telling a story in a novel, particularly in the first person perspective, should be akin to telling the story to your friends over a few drinks, or to a group of players around the table of your RPG Campaign. It has to feel natural. Maybe that’s just me.
On another note on language, one thing I’ve always held true is that a character’s voice should match their place of origin. For example, an American character should mostly use American turns of phrase, slang and even your writing should show American styles and grammar. For example, they’d say ‘organize’ instead of ‘organise’, ‘armor’ and not ‘armour’. Someone from other English-speaking nations, such as Britain or Canada, could then use the other words, and spell things with ‘zed’ instead of ‘zee’. But this last thing is purely a matter of style, but one I truly believe in. It does make it hard sometimes for the author to switch between styles when writing two different characters.
As I mentioned above, a character’s voice also shows their outlook on life, and much like your voice, it tells you of their personality. A character with a short fuse should reflect that in the way they narrate events. If you have a character much like the one in the latest Doom game, one just focused on killing monsters and with no regard for the overall plot or people’s explanations, then they shouldn’t do much in terms of exposition, because it goes against their personality. In such circumstances, their voice is dissonant to the rest of the characterisation.
One of my characters, from a novel that someday might see the light of day, has a teaching side-job, so he’s used to giving explanations and exposition, giving me an excuse for his info-dump moments—though I always keep them short as they have a propensity of killing the flow and the mood.
On a final note, and once again on style, ask yourself this when writing your character’s voice, even if it’s the omniscient narrator: who are they telling the story to? This will help you set the tone of their voice, bet it formal or casual. Will they swear freely or keep it clean? It all depends on who the invisible audience is. Maybe, and this is my personal favourite, they’re telling the story to themselves? Maybe it’s all an inner monologue.
When writing, be fiction or non-fiction, you must always keep an eye out for The Voice. It sometimes tells more than what you write, and will help create an emotional and intellectual bond between the writing and your audience. It takes practice to develop your voice, let alone that of your characters, particularly if you’re dealing with multiple points of view.
I hope you’ve found this guide useful. Until next time, when I’ll be talking about characters in novels, both protagonists and the supporting cast.