Characters are possibly the most important part of a book; the characters are who your reader will connect with. If your readers connect with your characters, they’ll willingly follow them through your story. But you have to make sure they connect, and character voice is a big part of accomplishing that. Your character’s voice involves all of their background and quirks, all of the personal behaviors and ways they speak that your readers will relate to. So let’s get into how to build a strong character voice.
It’s important to consider what cultural worldview your character will be coming from. What are the common behaviors of the culture they grew up in? What behaviors are forbidden? What are common images in this culture that your character might use to illustrate concepts?
For example, Duyên is accustomed to taking off her shoes when she enters a building, and she knows that serving or digging into her plate before the head of the table has started is rude. She’s familiar with dragons as both companions and symbols of protection (drakes) or royalty (regular dragons), with phoenixes as symbols of wisdom, and with water sprites as symbols of innocence. She’s familiar with snakes as symbols of fortune, good or ill, and a number of other symbols connected to the Virilen pantheon of gods.
These will shape her interaction with other characters and with her surroundings, and the way she describes certain things.
Things that are out of keeping with a character’s cultural background will likely catch their attention more, as well. For example, Duyên would notice right away if a guest failed to remove their shoes upon entering a home. Awareness of your character’s cultural background can be a great tool for highlighting details you want to stand out.
The way your character has been treated over the course of their life will also impact their voice. A character who grew up with a loving family in a society where their views are largely accepted will have a very different way of seeing things from a character who started out as a slave and is prejudiced against.
Duyên grew up in a very wholesome family and therefore sees family as something beautiful and desirable, something she wants to be part of building one day. Her best friend, on the other hand, avoids home as much as possible because her family relationships are unhealthy. While Duyên feels perfectly at home in a guild she’s only been part of for a couple of months, Sairsha feels out-of-place and unworthy due to her being foreign and having grown up as a slave.
Look at your character’s history and consider how their upbringing will shape their perception of certain issues, of themselves, of those around them, or of life as a whole.
Your character’s voice can also be impacted by their physical location. A character who lives in the desert might use a lot of imagery involving sand, dunes, wind, heat, djinn, sun, etc., while a character who lives near the ocean might use more imagery involving waves, fish, sea dragons, breezes, salt, etc.
Duyên doesn’t live in a fishing village, but two of the neighboring towns have large fishing industries and therefore she’s familiar with the sea and with fishing. This comes through in some of her thoughts. For example:
The tension of the calligraphers seemed to weave itself into a net, wrapping around the group and pulling tight until it became hard to breathe.
Out of the net and into the shark’s teeth.
The catch with this one (no pun intended) is that you often have to establish the source of these comparisons. If you know that your character lives between two fishing villages but the reader has no hint of that, they’ll likely wonder where the fishing metaphors are coming from. So be sure to establish these before you use them.
How do you determine what your character is likely to notice? Considering your character’s personal values will help you figure out what to describe and focus on when writing in their perspective. A character whose community is very important to them will likely notice the people around them more. A character in charge of something will notice things that would impact their ability to lead effectively. A character who values beauty will notice the beauty in many things, sometimes in unconventional ways.
For example, Duyên notices when something is off with one of her friends because her friends are very important to her. Sairsha notices beautiful details about things because she values beauty (and because she’s an artist, but we’ll get to occupation and hobbies in a moment). Zen is the guildmaster, so he notices when things are going on with the calligraphers in his guild, especially when their behavior reflects how effective his leadership has or hasn’t been.
Your character’s occupation or hobbies can also shape their voice. A fisherman might notice weather patterns more often than an artist, while an artist might notice small details or the lighting of a scene but pay no attention to the weather as a whole.
Occupations and interests can come through to varying degrees, either depending on how important a given interest is to your character or simply depending on the situation.
As an example, Duyên is an author and musician. She wonders about people’s stories, she practices prose in her mind, and she notices music in the mundane. A few specific snippets:
Duyên wondered, as she often did, what each patient’s story was. Did they have family? What was the cause of their madness? One day, she wanted to write all their stories.
Doing the dishes always gave Duyên time to think—sometimes too much time—but she let her mind loose to wander into stories of lives beyond her own, piecing together passages of prose in her mind to keep her thoughts away from the inevitable.
The village flew by in a blur, and wind whistled past Duyên’s ears like the treble to the bass of her pounding heartbeat.
Writing and music are integral pieces of Duyên’s life, and that’s reflected in her character voice. And, like I mentioned with Sairsha, part of the reason she notices small details is because she’s an artist and she pays attention to things she could paint and how she might do so.
Your character’s interests and vocations will shape the way they see the world and what they notice.
Your character’s personality will also impact the way they see and interact with the world. A character who values her community but is more introverted might notice that her friend is feeling down and decide to make a gift, while a more outspoken character might ask what’s wrong right away.
A character who is in-tune with their own emotions will likely use more emotional descriptions, while one who isn’t will probably have more matter-of-fact prose. (The challenge is to still show the emotions of the latter character so that the reader can connect with them, even if the character doesn’t notice their emotions themselves.)
A selfless character might see situations in terms of their effects on everyone else around them, while a more self-centered character will be very much in their own thoughts and the consequences for them.
There are an abundance of ways that your character’s personality can impact their voice and behavior.
Greetings & Farewells
Looking at more specifics of how your character talks, their more literal character voice, we’re going to start with what greetings and farewells are common in your culture. How do people generally greet one another? How do they say goodbye? Once you’ve figured this out, ask how your character would use or adapt these usual sayings.
In Virilia, the popular greeting or farewell used during the day is “Matroia shine upon you,” in reference to the sun goddess. Duyên generally uses this phrase in full. A character who uses briefer sentences—Tora, for example—might shorten it to “May Matroia shine.” Another character might say “Matroia shine today.” Because Sairsha doesn’t believe in the Virilen gods, she shifts the phrase and instead says “May the sun shine upon you” or some variation thereof. A character who’s doubting the gods might refrain from using or returning a religious-based greeting at all.
You can also ask whether your character is likely to be the first to initiate greetings or whether they’re more likely to wait for someone else to greet them before returning the greeting. Or your character might not return a greeting at all, or might return a verbal greeting with a nod or something else non-verbal.
Duyên is always the first to greet those around her; it’s important to her to make people feel seen. Sairsha loves people just as much, but is quieter and more likely to wait until someone else expresses interest in a conversation before returning their greeting, out of a desire not to bother someone who would rather be left alone.
What about nicknames and terms of endearment like “kiddo,” “sweetheart,” “goofball”? What about more derogatory terms like “little miss perfect,” “bastard,” “dork”?
Does your character use these terms? With whom? In what situations? Do they use some of these terms differently from the normal use? For example, using “dork” as a term of endearment rather than an insult, or using “kid” in a condescending manner rather than an affectionate one? Are there only particular situations in which they use them this way?
This isn’t going to be an argument on whether or not, or how, you ought to portray cursing in your book. That’s a separate issue. But you should know whether or not your character would realistically curse and why. This can refer to real-life curses or made-up curses (the latter of which I recommend for secondary worlds if you’re going to have characters who curse on-page, because real-world curses often feel out-of-place).
Does your character refrain from cursing because they believe it’s wrong, or simply because they think it’s unnecessary or uncreative? (If they think it’s uncreative, do they make up their own creative substitutes?) Do they curse because they see nothing wrong with it, or because it slips out when they’re frustrated? This won’t only impact what they say, but also how they feel about saying or hearing curses.
You might also have characters who consider different things curses. Maybe Character A sees nothing wrong with saying “snotbuckets,” but that’s a highly offensive curse to Character B. (Totally ridiculous example, but it conveys the point.) Or characters who simply have different views on cursing as a whole. This can create interesting dynamics and interactions between characters, and even internal struggles within more conservative characters who have friends who are less conservative with their language.
As you can see, a lot of elements can go into a character’s voice on the page. It can be pretty complicated to build a strong and consistent character voice. But I guarantee it will give you a stronger character that your reader will be better able to connect with.
Need some prompts to get you thinking about your character’s voice? Sign up to my newsletter and check out the character voice questions in the resource library.
What’s the hardest part of nailing a character voice, for you? What’s the most fun part of the process? Let me know in the comments!