Designing Your Character's Narrative Voice

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

 

Pacing.

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.


Consider:

  • 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.

 

Vocabulary.

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.


Consider:

  • Use of colloquialisms (slang),especially words specific t