Lesson 2 from an English Teacher

Let’s jump straight into the next trait from the 6 traits of writing: Voice.

Voice is an abstract concept that can be hard to grasp and is definitely a challenge to truly teach my students, who are only marginally interested (and that could be giving them way too much credit) in the subject. I usually play different sound clips for them and have them identify who’s speaking. Spongebob! Batman! Justin Bieber!

It’s the first step in trying to explain that your voice in writing is unique to you.

Or it should be.

Famous writers have unique voices. I’m not sophisticated enough to identify an author simply from hearing a snippet of their writing. But think about when you read Jane Austen versus Earnest Hemingway versus John Steinbeck. They all have very different writing styles…or VOICE. In much the same way, we as authors need to develop our own unique voice, which can really only come with practice.

However we need to take it a step further. Not only do we need our own unique voices, but so do our characters. If all our characters “sounded” the same, they wouldn’t be very interesting. Our characters’ voices will say so much about them. Voice encompasses the vocabulary they choose to use including slang terms or the formality of their language.  It can be affected by what accents they have (though don’t go overboard with this). It’s the way they respond in situations that arise. It’s how much they speak. It can even be a change in the way they speak depending on who it is they’re speaking to.

And a character’s voice isn’t limited to just the way they speak (though that is surely important). Their inner voice needs to be honed as well. How do they sound when they think to themselves? This can be vastly different from the way they speak to other characters and thus be very revealing.

And how about body language? It can set a tone between characters and say so much without them speaking a word. Or hint at a subtext that is vastly different from what the characters are actually saying to each other.

One exercise I found helpful when I was preparing to do Nanowrimo for the first time was a suggestion to let your characters rant, whether it be your protagonist, antagonist or any supporting character whose voice you’re struggling with or any that you want to get to know better. Let them say whatever they need to about what bothers them. You will be surprised how clearly their voice comes out. And you might learn something about your character as well.

I completed this exercise for both my protagonist and antagonist and discovered soemthing new about each of them. Especially my protagonist because she’s not a very outspoken person. She’s shy and tries very hard to not be noticed (for very good reason), so it was a wonderful and enlightening experience to hear her voice and get a feel for her as a character.

Of course once you have a handle on your character’s voice, the next step is to make sure that it stays consistent. (We call this staying in character.) And when you’re still writing and discovering your character, this can be a danger. Thankfully we have this wonderful thing called editing to help catch when our characters are not acting like themselves. And if we’re lucky, we also have a great support group to help us find those inconsistencies.

Next Lesson from an English Teacher: Word choice!

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