Whisler Edits Blog

Demystifying Character Voice  

Demystifying Character Voice  

March 20, 202413 min read

Discover in this post …

  • a simple definition of character voice.

  • four excerpts from published novels that display strong voice.

  • ways to apply the methods in the excerpts to your own writing.


Oh, That Elusive Voice

What comes to mind when you hear the term “voice” in relation to fiction?

Don’t think too hard. Just jot down the first words your brain supplies. Or blurt them out if you’re alone (or what the heck—shout ‘em out if you’re feeling confident regardless of your environment).

Now identify which of these statements you identify with most:

  • “My character’s voice rocks and I know exactly how to show it off in my story.”

  • “I know what voice is—I think—but I’m not sure whether my character has a strong one or not.”

  • “I’ve heard people talking about voice, but to me it seems ambiguous and I have no idea if a clear voice is coming across in my writing.”

If you feel aligned with the second or third bullet point, that’s okay! The purpose of this post is to help you pinpoint what “voice” means in fiction and how we, as writers, can break down its ambiguity and understand the individual pieces it includes.

It can hurt when a critique partner, reader, or literary agent tells you they don’t connect with your main character’s voice. Maybe they compliment your worldbuilding, creativity, or premise, but they regret to say they can’t relate with your story on an emotional level.

Oftentimes, if someone can’t connect emotionally, it means they didn’t care enough about your protagonist to root for them. And a significant part of caring about your protagonist stems from understanding them and falling in love with the way they see the world.

That’s how I define character voice, by the way:

Character Voice = how your character sees the world + how they communicate that on the page

Characters can convey how they see the world through their thoughts and their dialogue. But explanations like this can clarify “voice” only so far. The best way to understand how authors infuse their characters with personality and life is by studying and learning from examples.

Below I’ve included four excerpts from published novels:

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

  2. The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

  3. Safe House by Meg Cabot (writing as Jenny Carroll)

  4. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Sometimes a character’s voice is easy to identify and sometimes it’s subtle, but in each of the following examples, the author has achieved more than mere words on the page. The protagonist is a living, breathing soul. As readers, we feel it. We believe it. We’re invested and ready to follow the character (and the story) wherever the author cares to lead us.

*Note: This post focuses on character voice (see the definition above), which can vary from author voice (author’s opinions, attitudes, and perspectives they bring to the book). Keep this in mind as you read the examples and explanations below.


What We Can Learn from Ella Enchanted

Let’s start with a quick example from one of my favorite books from middle school: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Read the excerpt below, collect your own thoughts about Ella’s voice, then see if you agree with my analysis that follows.

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

PASSAGE FROM ELLA ENCHANTED

Point-of-view character: Ella

My mouth opened automatically. The spoon descended and a hot—but not burning—swallow poured in. Mandy had gotten the carrots at their sweetest, carrotiest best. Weaving in and out of the carrots were other flavors: lemon, turtle broth, and a spice I couldn’t name. The best carrot soup in the world, magical soup that nobody but Mandy could make.

The rug. The soup. This was fairy soup. Mandy was a fairy!

But if Mandy was a fairy, why was Mother dead?

“You’re not a fairy.”

“Why not?”

“If you were, you would have saved her.”


ANALYSIS OF ELLA ENCHANTED

Levine is a master at dropping readers directly into her protagonist’s mind. She uses short, punchy sentences to mimic Ella’s real-time thoughts: “The rug. The soup. This was fairy soup. Mandy was a fairy!” The revelation dawns on readers at the same time it dawns on Ella.

Ella’s speech mimics her thoughts. It’s short, simple, and direct. By staying consistent in this regard, Levine reveals Ella’s personality and brings readers closer to her. We understand the way Ella processes the world, and we’re excited to experience it alongside her.

Don’t be afraid to write what your characters are actually thinking. “Carrotiest” may not be a word, but in Ella’s mind, “the carrots at their sweetest, carrotiest best” is the most accurate way to describe them. We get a sense of Ella’s youth and excitement about a delicious soup. To top it off, this scene of Levine’s isn’t just for fun—rather, it moves the story forward as Ella learns shortly after this excerpt why Mandy couldn’t save her mother.

So to establish a clear voice for your character, consider the way they process the world. Are they dreamy and nostalgic, constantly shifting into the inner world of their thoughts? Blunt and sharp-witted, tending to speak before they think? Determined and curious like Ella? Get to know your character at their core before attempting to convey their interior world on the page.


What We Can Learn from The False Prince

Next on my list is The False Prince (middle grade fantasy by Jennifer A. Nielsen), another terrific read. Let’s take a look.

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

PASSAGE FROM THE FALSE PRINCE

Point-of-view character: Sage

Conner walked closer to me. “Stand when I address you.”

I obeyed. Conner was taller than me by several inches and stood closer than I liked. But I refused to step back. It occurred to me that he was testing to see whether I could.

“Are you standing straight?” Conner asked. “You slouch so much, I might mistake you for a hunchback. And with all that hair in your face, you might be a criminal too.”

I straightened but made no attempt to push the hair out of my eyes. I could see him just fine, which was all I cared about.

Conner asked, “Who do you look like? Your mother or father?”

“That’s hard to say, sir. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen myself in a mirror.”

“You have a clever tongue and an arrogant tilt to your head. I’m surprised Mrs. Turbeldy hasn’t beaten it out of you.”

“You mustn’t blame her. She beat me the best she could.”

“You’re a trick to figure out, Sage. Would you ever be on my side, even if I chose you above the other boys?”

“I’m only on my side. Your trick will be convincing me that helping you helps me.”


ANALYSIS OF THE FALSE PRINCE

It’s easy to tell that Sage, our protagonist, is sure of himself. He refuses to step back or be intimidated by Conner, even though Conner is older, taller, and standing close to him, testing him. Neither does Sage push his hair out of his eyes after Conner insults his appearance.

Voice isn’t always inner narration. Sage’s dialogue proves him witty as well. Lines like “You mustn’t blame her. She beat me the best she could” point to an easygoing self-assurance Conner can’t match. In fact, Sage turns the tables by suggesting Conner might become his ally and help him pursue goals of his own.

Dialogue is one of the most effective ways to reveal your character’s voice. Don’t underestimate it, and don’t let your character sound like everyone else. Know their personality, goals, and shortcomings, and let them bleed onto the page.


What We Can Learn from The False Prince

If you’re like me, you not only know Meg Cabot for The Princess Diaries, but you also devoured the rest of her books as a teenager in the early 2000s.

… Right, guys?

If you haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll introduce you to one of her books now (Safe House, book 3 in the 1-800-Where-R-You? YA romantic suspense series)..

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

PASSAGE FROM SAFE HOUSE

Point-of-view character: Jess

Then—and I kid you not—the cheerleaders and Pompettes did this dance, in the middle of the gym floor, to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from Titanic.

And people cried during it. I swear. I looked around, and people were totally crying.

It was a good dance and all. You could tell they’d worked totally hard on it. And they’d only had like two days or something to memorize it.

Still, it didn’t make me feel like crying. Seriously. And I don’t think I’m like a hardened person or anything. I just hope that when I die, nobody does an interpretive dance at my memorial service. I can’t stand that kind of thing.

I can tell you what did make me feel like crying, though. The fact that, as the dance was going on, some people walked into the gym. I was sitting midway up the bleachers—Ruth wanted to make sure we could see everything, and she hadn’t even known, at the time, that there was going to be an interpretive dance—but I could still make out their features. Well enough to know they weren’t high-school students.

They weren’t high-school teachers, either.

What they were was Feds.

Seriously. And not just any Feds, either, but my old friends Special Agents Johnson and Smith.

You would think that, by now, they’d have given up. I mean, they’ve been following me around since May, and they still don’t have anything solid to pin on me. Not like what I’m doing is even wrong. I mean, okay yeah, I help reunite missing kids with their families. Oooh, lock me up. I’m a dangerous criminal.

Except of course they don’t want to lock me up. They want me to work for them.


ANALYSIS OF SAFE HOUSE

Talk about character voice that jumps off the page! Even if I hadn’t told you this was a YA novel, you’d probably guess right away that Jess, the point-of-view character, is a teenager.

A teenager with plenty of thoughts and opinions—and she doesn’t hold back. Did you hear Jess’s voice in your head as you read this passage? That’s one reason Meg Cabot is so successful. She gives you direct access to her protagonist’s mind, and she makes sure that character is a living, breathing human whose voice mimics the target reader’s—in this case, that of a sixteen-year-old girl.

Give some thought to your protagonist’s age and consider their manner of speaking. Jess sometimes speaks like she thinks, but more often (though this excerpt doesn’t show any dialogue), she says only part of what she’s thinking. Readers connect with her on a deep level because they’re privy to the place her voice shines—in her thoughts.

Oh, and did you notice how casually Cabot slipped in Jess’s backstory from the other books in this series? This is book 3, and instead of dryly attempting to drop important events from the first two books into the story, Cabot stays true to Jess’s voice and introduces what readers need to know (the fact that Jess helps find missing kids) in a natural way that fits the scene.


What We Can Learn from The Name of the Wind

If you haven’t read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for.

Now that’s just my opinion. But I can’t name a book that has made me laugh and cry more, so seriously—if you’re a fan of fantasy, and you haven’t stumbled across it yet, give it a shot.

You’re welcome.

On to the excerpt:

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

PASSAGE FROM THE NAME OF THE WIND

Point-of-view character: Kvothe

Through the open doorway I heard the warm, bustling sounds of a busy inn: the low murmur of conversation, punctuated with laughter, the bright clink of bottle glass, and the dull thump of wooden tankards on tabletops.

And, threading gently through it all, a lute played in the background. It was faint, almost drowned by the other noise, but I heard it the same way a mother can mark her child crying from a dozen rooms away. The music was like a memory of family, of friendship and warm belonging. It made my gut twist and my teeth ache. For a moment my hands stopped aching from the cold, and instead longed for the familiar feel of music running through them.

I took a slow, shuffling step. Slowly, sliding along the wall, I moved back away from the doorway until I couldn’t hear the music anymore. Then I took another step, until my hands hurt with the cold again and the ache in my chest came from nothing more than broken ribs. They were simpler pains, easier to endure.


ANALYSIS OF THE NAME OF THE WIND

This passage does more than describe the sounds of the busy inn. It reveals the way Kvothe, and only Kvothe, can interpret those sounds. As readers, we learn that Kvothe recognizes the lute “the same way a mother can mark her child crying from a dozen rooms away.” It touches something deep within him, and he reacts viscerally to the music, allowing readers to feel his longing and his heartbreak. He prefers the physical pain of his broken ribs to the emotional anguish provoked by the music.

In addition to sentence structure, word choice, and dialogue, don’t forget that the way your character responds to their environment and story events plays a vital role in their voice. Readers should know what holds meaning for your character. What makes them laugh? What hurts them? What do they fear? What do they love? Expose your protagonist’s deepest emotions to readers. Readers will bond with your point-of-view character and will root for the living, breathing person you’ve created.


Summing Up

Today we’ve discussed the definition of character voice.

Character Voice = how your character sees the world + how they communicate that on the page

I’ve also given examples that bring character voice to life. You can establish a realistic, compelling voice for your point-of-view character by paying close attention to the following items:

  1. Sentence structure and word choice

  2. Dialogue

  3. Character’s age and the way it affects how they process the world

  4. Character’s deep feelings about their environment

Scribble a few notes about how the listed items relate to your own point-of-view character. Are these items easy to identify, or are some of your thoughts around them murky? Dig deeper into the murky parts until you find clarity regarding who your protagonist is and how you want to convey the deepest parts of them on the page.

After all, readers can’t get to know your point-of-view character inside and out if you don’t know them intimately first!


Did this post change anything you previously believed about character voice? What are the easiest and most difficult aspects of voice you’ve encountered in your own writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


Do you want to learn how to write a story that makes your target readers stand up and cheer? If you’d like support from A to Z (from brainstorming to drafting to revising to publication), book a Discovery Call with me to see if you’re a good fit to join my book coaching program, Fantasy Footsteps: Road to Publication. And if you haven’t done so already, grab your Free Guide on how to hook readers from your story’s start!


Nicole Whisler Edits

Nicole Whisler is a developmental editor and book coach who specializes in working with writers of fantasy novels. Prior to editing, she taught English and creative writing full-time for six years. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a member of the Professional Editors Network, and a leading book coach for the Coach Foundation. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she leads an in-person writing critique group at her local library.

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