This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Recently I ran across a novel by a well-known eighteenth-century novelist. It begins like this:
It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.
Not bad, right? The lines suggest some questions that readers might want to pursue: Why did the narrator want to escape the bay, and from what? Who is “we”?
Call me Ishmael
Some years later, that novelist wrote another book about the sea, using a first-person point of view and the sea as setting. It begins like this:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
While the opening of Herman Melville’s Omoo is interesting, the opening of Moby-Dick, with its rolling rhythms, is irresistible. The difference: voice. And judging from these two passages, written some years apart, voice is something that can be developed over time.
Developing your voice
Every writer wants to develop a strong writing voice. In a novel, the author’s voice usually belongs to a character. In Moby-Dick, the character’s voice and the author’s voice are the same, or at least deeply connected. But this is not always the case.
Most novels have at least several—and sometimes many—characters, and you’ll have to give each of them his or her own voice. These people might not come from the same geographic area. They might not be the same gender, race, age, or educational or economic background. They’ll each need to speak with his or her own vocabulary and rhythm, and think his or her own thoughts. Even if you rely on only one character to carry the weight of your story, you might want the character’s thoughts to have a voice different than the narrator’s.
Pay attention to structure
To keep your characters and your narration distinct, you need to be particularly aware of sentence and paragraph structure. Variation is critical. Are all your sentences, for all your characters, essentially the same? Are they short and abrupt, or long and lyrical? Do you use mostly simple declarative sentences?
If the passage seems flat, check for vagueness, abstractions, or anything that seems forced or obvious. Don’t let the speech patterns of your characters become interchangeable. Don’t use words or phrases in dialogue that you use in exposition.
Know your characters
Most of all, know who your characters are. Just as each person in life is different, so must your characters also be distinct individuals. Understand down to your bones what each character wants and fears. Know what their dreams and conflicts are. Then let them speak for themselves.
Because when you listen to your characters—when you truly hear them—you’ll hear your own strong, authorial voice. And that’s the voice that your readers will remember.