Viewpoint Writing 2: How To Use Your Character’s ‘Voice’

There are some simple rules to remember when writing form a character’s viewpoint, yet many forget them. Here’s a rundown of some to remember . . .

No matter what language you speak, regional accents and dialect always give away your origin – unless of course you have had voice coaching. In the UK accent differences can be very subtle – for example, I can tell if someone is from my home town or a town just ten miles away. You can probably do this too.

When ‘building’ a character for your story, their ‘voice’ is very important – and not just accent or local patois. Listen to your friends. Let’s say for the sake of convenience you all grew up in the same part of town. You therefore all have the same accent and probably use much the same slang words and idiom. So what sets you apart?

It’s the way you talk. Some people talk rapidly, some are slow and thoughtful. Some have little speech mannerisms that mark them out. All these things add up to them being an individual, a real, live, talking person. Using your character’s ‘voice’ is therefore a powerful tool that helps your reader to identify with that character and so makes them much more real.

Let’s take an example. Three people are sat watching TV – grandmother, mother and daughter. They’re watching a movie. Suppose it’s ‘Pulp Fiction’. Now how do you think they would speak if asked to describe that movie? Maybe the grandmother would be scandalised by the sex and violence. Maybe the mother would be uncomfortable about her daughter seeing it. Perhaps the daughter just loves it.

So they all have different attitudes to the movie – but how do you think they would summarise it? Let’s see how this sounds.

Grandmother: I thought it a good movie but really, is all that bad language and shooting necessary?

Mother: Yes it was a good film but I thought it was rather violent and I was concerned about my daughter seeing it.

Daughter: I really enjoyed the movie – it was very thrilling and full of action.

Garbage, isn’t it? It all sounds the same – as if one person was saying all three lines. Maybe this is better:

Grandmother: I thought it a good movie but really, is all that bad language and shooting necessary?

Mother: I kind of liked it but, you know, I was a bit worried about my daughter being exposed to all that bloodshed and goings-on.

Daughter: A really cool movie – it was just so laid-back yet full of go at the same time, you know?

Now I’m not pretending that they would really speak like that – it’s just an illustration of ‘voice’. In this instance I kept the way the grandmother might speak as that was they style I used for all three in the first run-through. Have a bit of fun – rewrite it as if the daughter was the ‘voice’ for all three – it comes out just as bad as my first attempt did!

This extends into all your writing. In a previous article I mentioned our all-action hero, Jake Bullet, as he enters a bar where a gunman is waiting for him. Here in a few lines is the same scene from Jake’s viewpoint and that of his adversary.

As he turned and saw the guy heave a pistol our from beneath his coat, Jake exploded into action, leaping the length of the bar and crashing a fist into the gunman’s chin. Stood over the guy Jake turned to Henry. ‘That’s one thing he won’t try again. If he gets up I’m gonna bust his face.’

Pulling the pistol from under his jacket, Sam thought what a posing daisy this famous slick cop looked in his fancy suit. He was going to be easy. Then he froze as his mark jumped toward him. He just had time to think what a bum story his boss had given him about this creep cop before he saw stars and hit the floor. Bummer.

Again, it’s not a finished piece! It just gives an idea of how using a slightly different ‘delivery’ can help to identify the character. A point to note also is that the character’s ‘voice’ goes beyond dialogue. Sam’s way of thinking and some of his character comes out in the way he is described as seeing the scene. This is another aspect of viewpoint writing and ‘voice’ – describing the action as would the character – not you. Keep to this as your scene unfolds – remember, it’s your character who is doing the seeing and talking!

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