Voice is essential; it’s the thing that keeps us thinking about a book for long after its done. It’s that thing that editors always say hooks them, the one indescribable quality they’re looking for.
Well, I’m here to describe it to you. My character Scar (SCARLET and LADY THIEF) has a really unique voice—she misuses tenses, she rarely uses adverbs, and she has a very earthbound way of describing things. She thinks of the boy she’s in love with as having wheat hair and ocean eyes—things she has physically seen and has positive associations with.
Which brings me to my first point—those are three things I can list out. They are specific, they are finite. They are:
Why should you have rules? First, it’s really helpful when you’re in the middle of the story and your plot has just jumped a fairly literal shark and you feel like you’ve totally lost your sense of your character to have something to refer to. Like I said, they’re specific and finite—they are your stakes in the ground for your story. They anchor everything else.
How many rules? I suggest thinking of three. More is too many, and if you have less than three, it may not be enough to hold.
More importantly, how to make these rules? Well, that leads us to:
2. Point of Reference
I have one friend that, in virtually every conversation we have, a reference to the movie Super Troopers pops up. That’s part of the way we talk to each other, but it’s more than that. It defines our sense of humor. It makes a statement about an experience we’ve both had. It even establishes us as friends to other people—and sometimes at the risk of excluding them. One joke says all that.
Now, obviously this is going to change based on your characters likes, dislikes, interests, and your general world building. For example, a character in a contemporary novel who is obsessed with sushi and death metal would have a different definition of how to have fun than a shy character who likes architecture and rare tea. Because they define “fun” differently, those references start slipping in. It’s a head-banging good time, or maybe as thrilling as a first flush Darjeeling. Define your references, and it will inform your character and your character’s voice.
But that’s not all the rules should accomplish, because they should also:
3. Reflect Plot
Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION is one of the most exquisite examples of well crafted prose that I’ve seen in a long time, because on the very first page, if you’re paying attention, you can tell what the novel is about. The first couple lines, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, deejay. Like Cooper van Epp. Standing in his room—the entire fifth floor of a Hicks Street brownstone—trying to beat-match John Lee Hooker with some piece of trip-hop horror.” Read it aloud—there’s a physical, musical beat to it. Trip hop horror. There’s disdain and information (clearly she thinks of herself as someone who can “do”)—but that beat!
I won’t ruin anything for you, but obviously music plays a huge part in the novel. And it’s right there in the words themselves. That to me is the height of craft and voice—being so intentional that you NEVER have to tell, because you’re always showing.
Music is a great example, but there are others. Is your book about horror? Think about how to reflect creepiness and atmosphere in your word choices. Is your main conflict internal, the main character fighting against their basic urges? Think about how that would affect the way a character speaks, even in their own head.
These are my three most basic tips: come up with three rules, be intentional and thoughtful about where your character’s point of reference lies, and use your language to meaningfully highlight and reflect plot. These three basic steps will take you a long way in crafting a unique voice that is fleshed out and feels alive to your reader.
Plus, it’s really fun to play with.
A. C. Gaughen is the author of Scarlet. She serves as the Director of Girls’ Leadership for Boston GLOW, a non-profit organization that creates opportunities to encourage and engage teen girls in the greater Boston area. She holds a Masters degree in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland and a Masters in Education from Harvard University. You can find out more about her at acgaughen.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/acgaughen.