How do we as writers create a character’s voice that is interesting and engaging, relatable and likeable?
I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump recently. After mulling over why I’ve tossed aside so many books, the answer became clear—the character voice wasn’t pulling me in. Attempts to make characters seem cool or competent seemed like showing off and attempts to make characters sympathetic or likeable came off as obvious pity-grabs. Character voice is one of the most important components of a novel, but it can be frequently overlooked. We reside in the characters’ heads for most of the book, so if we don’t like how they sound, there isn’t much incentive to keep reading. How, then, do we as writers create a character’s voice that is interesting and engaging, relatable and likeable?
Points of view and the impact on character voice:
When writing a scene, one of the first decisions the writer makes is what point of view to write in. While there are technically four points of view (first, second, third limited, third omniscient), second person tends to remain in choose-your-own-adventure novels and reader-insert fanfiction, and third omniscient has fallen out of favour in recent decades. Therefore the choice tends to be between first person and third limited.
First person positions the reader intimately close with the main character. We hear their every worry, doubt, and observation—the entire world of the novel is coloured through their eyes. For example, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is unfamiliar with West Egg and the extravagant lifestyle there. He narrates, “It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Gatsby it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name. My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.”
This proximity between reader and character encourages the audience to build a strong attachment to the character very quickly. However, this all hinges on whether the character’s voice is agreeable to the reader. If the reader dislikes the main character’s voice, it’s likely they’ll dislike the novel, if it’s written in first person. Character voice is the most essential element to making a first person novel work, and choosing the right voice can make or break your novel.
Third person limited has the reader more emotionally distant from the characters. This means readers can take longer to develop an attachment to the characters, but it also means that readers may be less irritated by the character’s voice. For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is narrated that, “When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him. ‘He is just what a young man ought to be,’ said she, ‘sensible, good-humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! So much ease, with such perfect good breeding!’”
This does not mean that character voice is not important in third person limited. Moreover, third-person writers are granted the unique ability to change characters each chapter and can write scenes from the perspective of characters that have only been mentioned briefly. Here, character voice is paramount in ensuring the writing of characters stays consistent across different perspectives. While it may seem that the lack of first-person narration makes the story less immersive, for some, third person is more immersive. The story is not being told to us by someone else, as is in first person—instead, we are an invisible presence experiencing the story alongside the characters.
Character voice and point of view work in tandem to create a certain style in writing. The emotions and observations of the characters, shown to us through the lens of the point of view, create a tone that evokes a certain emotional response from the readers. It develops a richness to the writing that takes it beyond words on a page.
Exercises in Style by novelist and poet Raymond Queneau takes a mundane scene—a man getting into an argument with another passenger on a bus—and proceeds to rewrite the scene in 99 different styles. Written in first person, the voice of the narrator changes depending on the style chosen, and so the otherwise uninteresting scene becomes humorous, cynical, or deeply philosophical. For example, the “precision” point of view detachedly narrates the situation like a police report whereas the “metaphorical” point of view humorously likens the man in the bus to being “tossed among the shoal of travelling sardines in a white-bellied beetle”.
Practising writing scenes in different styles from your own is a great writing exercise to help expand your writing. In saying that, the following two writing excerpts are my own attempt to play with the aforementioned scene, writing it once with a disdainful narrator and contrasting it to an adoring narrator.
Excerpt: “The disdainful style”
I’m in the S bus at rush hour trying to survive the trip home when a man starts to fight with a passenger beside him. I bite back my sigh. Of course it’s rush hour—when else would he choose to pick a fight? Surely not at a quieter time, where he wouldn’t have a captive audience to witness how deeply the world has wronged him.
The man is about twenty-six years old, wearing a felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon. The cord is worn and stretched out, as though he’s been tugging on it compulsively since he bought it. Whenever people get off the bus, the limited space means that the passenger beside him pushes against him to make way. The man accuses the passenger of jostling him whenever people walk off. He’s trying to sound aggressive, but there’s a high-pitched whine to his voice that makes it blubbering.
It grates on my ears.
The instant a seat is free he throws himself into it, entirely mindless of those around him who have been standing for much longer and much more uncomfortably than he has.
Two hours later, I see him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying, “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why. It seems the company he keeps is as badly dressed as he is.
Excerpt: “The adoring style”
I’m in the S bus at rush hour, on the commute home when a twenty-six-year-old man speaks up after being unfairly jostled by a passenger to his right. Whenever people alight the bus, the passenger deliberately pushes the man, seeking to aggravate him. Perhaps the passenger is envious of the man’s felt hat, which is stylishly adorned with a cord instead of a ribbon.
The man speaks up with strong emotion—he does not sound aggressive, which would escalate the situation. He speaks from his heart, a rising pitch to his voice betraying his authenticity. In a great show of mercy, he walks away from the altercation and takes an unoccupied seat on the bus, restoring peace once more.
Two hours later, I see him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying, “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why. It is such sound advice that my heart swells. How lovely it is to have friends who offer such great counsel!