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Monday, April 20, 2020

Dos and Don'ts for Writing Your Viewpoint Character's Voice

Recently I had to introduce a new viewpoint character into one of my WIPs, and it was tricky. In the process, I was reminded of a few things that do work well, and that don't work well.

But first, let's review what character voice actually is, because for a lot of us, it feels elusive and magical--like something that just "happens" (sorta like how people view theme). Here is my voice equation:

What the character thinks about + How he or she says it = Voice

I already did an article breaking this down here, that you can read if you want to know more about this. And it should be said that one of the key components to crafting a voice, is working from the inside, out. You need to really know your character, first. You need to know his or her wants, contradictions, flaws, motives, fears--all that jazz.

But today, I want to talk about actually putting that voice onto the page. Because sometimes, even when you know the equation and character, it can still feel elusive when you go to actually write. In part, in reality, this is because--like everything in writing--we are trying to take a notion, an aesthetic, or a feeling that is somewhat abstract, and make it concrete with actual words. 

And when you are doing this with a brand new character, it's hard not to fall back on other voices you've already used. Or already heard. 

I have no problem if you want to grab inspiration from other characters, but since this character is a different person, he or she needs to sound like a different person.

So let's assume you already know the character rather well.  

From that point, I've found there are a few things that are usually best avoided when working with a viewpoint character's voice, and things that are usually good ideas to implement when working with one. 


"Always" Sentence Structures (ex., always talks in long sentences or short sentences)

- When looking at developing voice, it might seem like a good idea to play with sentence structure--heck, it is a good idea, to an extent. But if you are too rigid with it, there are problems. The most obvious is that trying to read a story where every sentence is about the same length is a terrible experience for the reader. But it's more than that. Sentence structure is also used to control pacing, tone, and emotional experience. If you get too locked into a specific type of sentence structure, you doom other parts of your story. Also, most people don't adhere to a specific structure, constantly, in real life either.

Dominating Emotions that Undercut the Story

- If you are writing in a voice where the viewpoint character almost always sounds calm or relaxed--guess what? Chances are it's going to minimize the tension you have in your story. Because if they are calm, the reader is calm. If they aren't worried, the reader isn't worried. The only way you can get away with this consistently, is if you are writing a story with extremely high stakes at every turn, so that the calmness is a counterpoint that adds humor or irony. Likewise, a character who is consistently sad about whatever, might start to sound melodramatic--and when you get to the really sad part later in the story, it won't be as powerful, because we've already spent so much time feeling sad. In short, frankly, some dominating emotions work better as a viewpoint character's voice than others. (And every character should have their own dominating emotions.) Avoid dominating emotions that are going to undercut the power of your story.

Relying too Heavily on Accents

- There was a time where people did not really know what a particular accent sounded like, so it was helpful to actually write how that accent sounded in the text. Today's audience is different. Most of us have heard all kinds of accents. And if we don't know one, we can look it up online. Today, it's better to sprinkle in a few regional phrases here and there to remind us of the character's accent and background, rather than write the whole thing that way. (Not to mention, that makes it more difficult to read).

Stock Voices

- Once in a while you run into a character voice that sounds like a hundred other character voices of that genre. For example, YA is known for protagonists having a snarky voice. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but if you do have a viewpoint character whose voice sounds similar to many others, find a way to individualize it. Lots of people are snarky. But they are snarky in their own ways. How is your character snarky?

Pretty Much "Always" Anything

- One of the problems I sometimes run into is when the text is trying so hard to be voicey, that it's annoying. Like almost anything in writing, if you go too extreme, for too long, the reader can't wait to close the book. The same thing can happen with voice. We sometimes hear people say things like this about books: "Every viewpoint character sounded totally different and unique!" In reality, while someone may have felt that way, I'm willing to bet there wasn't that much "total" about it. Like accents, usually the most successful voices today aren't "always" anything, but instead regularly something specific--a dash of snark here and a dash of slang there. 

In this sense, it's okay to have a character who regularly talks in a particular sentence structure, has a regular line of a particular emotion, or who regularly uses regional phrases. But if you have a reoccurring viewpoint character who has a voice that is always _______--chances are it's going to get annoying and be very difficult to sustain over a whole book.

Not even viewpoints like say Lemony Snicket--whose main appeal is his character voice--is constantly going to be quirky for every sentence.

This is not to say you can't do this with minor characters--characters who aren't viewpoint characters, or characters who are viewpoint characters only very briefly, like in a teaser. But if this is a viewpoint character that needs to sustain a big part of the story, avoid "always" extremes. 

Not only do they get annoying, but again, can sort of "handicap" most stories, by limiting tone, tension, and emotion. 

Sure, all rules can be broken, but these are good guidelines for almost all stories. 


Now that we got that all out of the way, let's talk about some tips about what to do when actually writing your viewpoint character's voice.

Regularly Use Point 4 POV Penetration

- Point of view is more than picking first, second, or third person. It's also about how deep the prose gets into that character's mind and experience. This is called point of view penetration. Years ago, I talked about this and outlined the different points on the POV penetration spectrum. For simplicity, here is that again:

Here are the four different points on the spectrum, from the most distant to the closest:

(Point 1) Out of breath, Todd wiped the sweat off his face and fanned himself. He got a glass of cold water.

(Point 2) Todd was thinking about how hot it was outside as he got a glass of cold water.

(Point 3) It's freaking hot outside, Todd thought, like the devil's oven. He got a glass of cold water, even though it wouldn't do anything to fight the heat. Better than nothing, Todd thought.

(Point 4) It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing.

Notice the first example shows that Todd thinks it's hot from the outside. In the last example, the prose takes on his thoughts and attitude and we know he thinks it's hot from the inside. Point 4 is the most effective place to be to get character voice on the page. 

Note that the last example, Point 4, is "showing" and "telling" simultaneously. The writer is "showing" us the thought process in the character's head, but humans (usually) think in "telling" sentences. Don't shy away from deep penetration because you have been told it's "telling" and that "telling" is bad. This kind of "telling" is actually "showing," and if used correctly, can render emotion more raw and more powerful than just regular "showing."

* FYI, the points of the spectrum are my own labeling/making. They are real, but I'm just letting you know that since I'm the one who labeled them, if you use this terminology elsewhere, people probably won't know what you are talking about. 

When switching to a new viewpoint character, it's usually best to get to Point 4 quickly. This is where the strongest voices reside.

Utilize Comparisons (Similes and Metaphors)

- What your viewpoint character chooses to compare something to will tell us a lot. If he compares the color of the sky to the white static on the television, we know he spends more time around or thinking about t.v. than he does nature. In contrast, someone who spends a lot of time in nature, might would compare the static of the t.v. to storm clouds. Consider what matters to your character and what he or she spends her time doing and thinking, and try mining that for an apt comparison. If you are introducing a new viewpoint, this is a great way to start building a sense of his or her voice. 

It also works well to convey his or her mood for the scene. If she uses a comparison that is positive, we will probably assume she is in a positive mood. If he uses a comparison that is negative, we will probably assume he is in a negative mood. So also consider your character's emotions when picking comparisons. This will in turn give us a sense of his or her attitudes.

Slightly Deviate the Inner World from the Outer World

- We all think and experience things that we don't share. In fact, some of what we think and experience is in direct contrast to what we show the world. There should probably be at least a slight deviation with your viewpoint character too. And if this happens at POV Point 4, even better (usually). What the character thinks about and experiences privately and how it is rendered in the text, will tell us a lot about the person. When it is at odds with what he or she presents to the world, we want to know why, which gives you another opportunity to further define your character's viewpoint.

Add Lines that Speak to Worldview

- In a story, it can be easy to just get focused on what is happening--I mean, obviously. But watch for opportunities to slide in a worldview your character has about something that comes up. Maybe someone your viewpoint character is listening to references the police. Assuming it suits the passage, go ahead and slide in a brief line that clues us into what that character thinks about the police. Are they "pigs"? Or are they protectors? Are they crooked? Or are they unappreciated? People to avoid? Or someone your viewpoint character dreams of being? This will help bring in their perspective.

Sprinkle in Unique, Surface Specifics

- You can actually get away with not doing this and still have a successful character voice and story. But if you want the voice to feel more defined, it can be useful to sprinkle in one or two or three surface quirks. Just remember that anything taken to an extreme can become annoying. So the keyword here is "sprinkle." In some scenes, you may sprinkle more generously than others, depending on the needs and tone of the scene. But you won't be dumping the sprinkles on in every paragraph through the whole book.

The quirk might be favorite words (Jack Sparrow says "savvy" and Smeagol says "precious") or regional phrases (in Utah, we are known for having a lot of strange "swears," such as "Oh my heck!", "flip", and "Son of a biscuit!"). It can also be something related to the prose. Brandon Sanderson has a viewpoint character who is terrible at writing similes and metaphors. Another character may be prone to using sentence fragments. Or maybe another is a bit more generous with the dashes. Or maybe one occasionally gets distracted.

Just make sure what you pick makes sense for your character.

Now, as one of my followers mentioned to me several weeks ago, often what sounds like a great voice, breaks writing rules. When working on surface specifics, what writing rules are broken, can help contribute to how the voice sounds.

Viewpoint Voice at Work

Next, I would like to show how you can take a passage that seems to have very little voice, and utilize these approaches to give it a stronger sense of one.

Impatient, Jason tapped the steering wheel, thinking about how this drive always seemed to take longer than it actually was. He had another fever. Others would have found it annoying, but he thought the irony was funny. 

These days he regularly felt sweaty, and he hadn't had time to do his laundry yet. 

He considered how the feverish episodes were become fewer and further in between and wondered if that was a bad thing. 

Jason had a belief that everyone had a secret worth knowing. 

He was keeping several right now, and one was that the only other person he knew with this illness had recently died.  

Finally, he arrived, parking alongside the forest, a decent distance from the A-frame cabin--in his friend's car.

He'd stolen it temporarily, but he would return it before she needed to go anywhere. 

Now compare it to this:

Jason tapped the steering wheel incessantly. Ugh, this drive always took a century. Because it was boring. His body felt like firecrackers had bred with the flu--he was sure he could melt a dreamsicle in a single lick. It was kinda hilarious. 

Because whatever he attempted, he ended up sweaty. 

And he hadn’t touched his laundry in forty years. 

The feverish episodes were becoming fewer and further in between though. He wondered if that was a bad thing.

Everyone had a secret.

And one of Jason’s, was that Peni Anderson was already dead.

Finally, Jason parked alongside the forest, a decent distance from the A-frame cabin--in Heather’s car.

She had work off today, so it’s not like she needed it.

I admit that a little bit of the context is missing in the second version, but I would plan to add it earlier in the story or soon after. But let's break down the difference.

Jason doesn't see himself as impatient, so I cut that. When life is boring to him, everything seems to take longer, so he exaggerates the time--it's one of his quirks. He loves pranks, bangs, and excitement, so using "firecrackers" fits with that. Maybe not perfectly, but enough to illustrate the point for now. "He was sure he could melt a dreamsicle in a single lick"--okay, so maybe he's a bit imaginative and likes sweets. "It was kinda hilarious"--well, that's not how most people would respond, so why is he? It seems he's one of those people who finds irony in his own bad circumstances funny. 

Notice that much of the text has gone deeper, to Point 4. But not all of it. That's okay. Remember, we just need to sprinkle in enough. Notice too that this version uses more implication. Deep POV does that. We see he's hiding something about this illness from others. "Everyone had a secret" seems to touch on his worldview. Maybe not a perfectly comprehensive example, but it definitely has more voice than the first.

Now go write that viewpoint voice!


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