Designing Your Character's Narrative Voice
Updated: Sep 16
Whether you’re writing dialogue or narration in first-person, one challenge you will face is designing your character’s voice. A lot of authors tend to forget that this is something you can and usually mustdo. It will not only aid in characterisation but also clarify who is speaking, and help your writing sound less ‘vanilla’.
To help myself and my clients remain consistent with our writing, I designed a formula to follow when plotting a character’s voice; Pacing, Vocabulary, Emotion and Focus. (PVEF, if you will. I know, rolls off the tongue!) How you elaborate on these points will depend on your character’s personality and circumstance.
Pacing, Vocabulary, Emotion, Focus
The structure of your character’s sentences.
This may change depending on your character’s age, class or education level. It can also be sped up by excitability and fear, or slowed down by fatigue and disorientation. That being said, your character’s voice can (and likely will) change at some point during your plot.
Long, eloquent sentences filled with description for elderly or well-educated characters. Characters will most likely be relaxed and/or very observant.
Short, concise sentences (lacking in complexity) with staccato vocabulary for children, uneducated characters, or simply those in a rush or scared.
Average, a mixture of long and short. It may be that your character is fairly average, which is fine—it’s relatable! In which case, focus pacing on emotion.
Consider the voice of Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.
Nick speaks with long, fluid sentences, and by doing so, Fitzgerald is showcasing a part of that very line of dialogue; that Nick grew up advantaged, with a good education, filled with flourish and an appreciation for words.
The types of words your character uses.
This can be based on where they are from, their education level, their class, their age, and even the time period.
To an extent, emotions can also affect a person’s vocabulary. For example, an easily angered person may swear more often, or a glass-half-empty character may be more likely to use words with heavily negative connotations.
Use of colloquialisms (slang),especially words specific to a certain geography.
Use of alternative languages. Your characters might mix their native tongue into their dialogue or narration.
Archaic vs. Modern vocabulary. What time period is your novel set in?
Does your character swear (F*ck!), not swear (Darn it!) or humorously swear (Fudge!)?
Common vs.Uncommon vocabulary. This is usually based on education level.
Now let’s take a look at the voice of Mia Thermopolis in Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries.
Like everyone doesn’t already think I’m a freak. I’m practically the biggest freak in the entire school. I mean, let’s face it: I’m five foot nine, flat-chested, and a freshman. How much more of a freak could I be? If people at school find out about this, I’m dead. That’s it. Dead.”
Mia is 15/16 years old here, and Cabot is showing this through a mixture of sentence structure and vocabulary. Her words are consistently modern, and fairly common usage. She doesn’t vary her words, reiterating ‘freak’ for emphasis, but also showcasing that Mia is only a teenager and isn’t going to be searching her mind for synonyms. She also uses informal speech with short interjections of ‘Like’ and ‘I mean’, which are telling of her social class, age, and the era.
The tone of your character’s voice.
How your character views the world. How they think about past/present/future events, themselves, and others. What about their personality or experiences has shaped them and the way they speak?
As I’ve mentioned before, it may be that one of these tones only takes hold in your character during certain situations (e.g. when they’re hungry, in danger, or in love).
Sassy/Sarcastic, dry/dark humour.
Unconfident, always second guessing themselves or others.
Funny, cracks jokes inside and out!
Anxious, always worried about repercussions and consequences.
Logical, not often emotional, thinks strategically.
Reflective/Nostalgic, often gets lost in memories.
Take a look at this short extract from Jenny Downham’s Before I Die.
I haul the rest of my clothes out of the wardrobe. My lungs wheeze, but I’m not stopping. Buttons ping across the room as I slash my coats. I shred my jumpers. I lacerate every pair of trousers. I line my shoes up on the window ledge and cut off their tongues. It’s good. I feel alive.
Tessa, the main character, is clearly furious and frustrated in this scene. You don’t need any ‘telling’ to know that. You don’t need context, and you don’t even need thought tracking. The pacing is fast, and the words are explosive and visceral. These put together connote anger. Even when you get to the final line, the words are positive, but the staccato nature still implies residual fury.
What your character is most likely to look at and focus on.
You can’t focus on every aspect of every scene in a novel, therefore you need to choose what your character is most likely to focus on, which will in turn reflect an aspect of their personality.
Be careful with this one, though. Ensure that you paint enough of a picture so your reader can envision the scene; While you’ll brush over some details, you’ll focus on others.
A large focus on surroundings. Your character will probably be artistic, appreciative, or careful.
A large focus on objects. Your character may be materialistic, or unused to the land they are in.
A large focus on other people. Your character may be selfless, caring, motherly or the opposite; wary, hypervigilant.
A large focus on themselves.Narcissistic, selfish, or troubled and isolated.
Here, I’m going to include a short sample of my novel, Seeking Shadows.
Aiden’s jaw clenched as he glared in my direction. The guard shouted again and cocked her weapon in a warning. For a minute, it disappointed me that he didn’t want to comply and would need to be shot here and now; having a bloodstain on my carpet would be a real shame, especially in my prime conference room. Now was this an opportunity to redecorate? A dark grey would look lovely with a crimson feature wall.
Here, I showcase a part of my antagonist’s personality by having the simple prospect of redecoration distract him from the highly dramatic scene taking place before him. Not only does it tell the reader how materialistic he is but also how cut-throat and heartless.
With all of that being said, here's a voice guideline I wrote for the above antagonist using the method outline above:
Pacing, long eloquent sentences with heavy detail, almost poetic in rhythm;
Vocabulary, uses attractive words to sound smart and impressive;
Emotion, mostly proud and boastful, but not easily fazed. Also becomes bitter when reminiscing;
Focus, materialistic, easily distracted by small details and expensive objects. Strange habit of fantasising about interior décor.
Come up with at least one bullet point to describe your character under each heading, write them on a Post-it note, and stick that somewhere you can see while you write. I guarantee you'll have a much easier time not only giving your characters unique voices but also keeping them consistent.
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