Writing Secrets: It’s voice that allows us to share their highs and lows

 In All About Writing, Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Develop your character’s voice if you want us to share in their highs and lows, get to know them and care about them.

But what does that really mean? Sure, people sometimes have speech quirks. They might use a certain phrase habitually. But I’ve learnt that if you use it more than twice or three times, it will irritate us more than it will illuminate the character.

Certainly, voice has to do with the words a character uses. Some are more educated than others. They might have a greater vocabulary. They might use gang jargon or children’s slang.

They might express things very precisely and clearly. Their thoughts flow logically:

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.  – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Or perhaps they speak in a rush of short sentences, in which thoughts fly this way and that:

Every day Mama said, You’re going to crack your head wide open, but no sir. I broke my arm instead. How I did it was spying on the African Communist Boy Scouts. Way up there in the tree I could see them but they couldn’t see me. The tree had green alligator pears that taste like nothing much. Not a one of us but Mama will eat them, and the only reason is she can remember how they tasted back home from the Piggly Wiggly with salt and hellman’s mayonnaise. ‘Mayonnaise?’ I asked her. ‘What color was the jar?’ But she didn’t cry. Sometimes when I can’t remember things from Georgia, she’ll cry. –The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

So think about the language and the grammatical aspects of voice, as well as its rhythms. Do people speak slowly and deliberately or in short, sharp sentences? What kind of words, flavours and imagery do they have access to? What will they compare things to?

Read it aloud and listen. Can you see and hear the character thinking, narrating or speaking? That’s the acid test.

Read Richard’s latest blog ‘Monday Motivation: When gobbledygook makes sense

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