Voice generally isn’t a problem for me. By the time I sit down to write, I usually know my characters so well that they speak in my head in their own distinct voices. I can hear them as clearly as I can hear myself, know how they’d react in a given situation.
At least, that’s how it usually goes.
I’ve recently ventured into Middle Grade, and things are a little different here. Voice is not the same in Middle Grade as it is in YA or in Adult, both of which I know how to write (most of the time) and neither of which give me much trouble (most of the time). Middle Grade voice is a totally thing to me, in part because I’ve never written it before and in part because I didn’t read much (or ANY) of it when I was actually in the target audience, so I never internalized it the way I did YA and Adult.
It’s challenging, finding a voice so different from your own. I haven’t quite managed yet, but I’m getting there.
Also, important to note before I go on: I’m talking here specifically about character voice. Narrative voice. Not my voice. Yes, the voices of my characters/narrators may change, but mine generally doesn’t. It’s how you know I’m the one who wrote something. I’ve already found that voice.
So how do I find a character’s voice, particularly when that voice is so far removed from my own experiences?
You have to go in to a voice-hunt knowing that a lot of what you write will be garbage. Completely unusable. Think of the work you do as practice exercises, ways to get your mind warmed up before the time comes for the big race: actually writing the novel.
Obviously we all have our own process for finding voice, but mine goes something like this:
1. Get to know the character
Does my character have a catch phrase? Are there particular words he/she/it refuses to use for a specific reason (e.g., one of my characters avoids using words with too many ‘s’s because he has a lisp that he finds embarrassing)? Does he/she/it speak multiple languages? If so, does he/she/it slide easily between them, or generally avoid using any of them? If English is not his/her/its first language, is his/her/its first language reflected in speech patterns? Does he/she/it speak in dialect? Think in dialect?
Is he/she/it abrupt or patient: would he/she/it speak in short, clipped sentences or long, drawn-out ones? Is he/she/it smart (and does he/she/it want other people to know it?)?What kind of slang does he/she/it use (NOTE: important to research character’s background/age group. Remember that kids will sometimes make up their own slang, so a group of friends might all use certain words/phrases that no one else does)?
2. Experiment (write!)
Set yourself scenerios in which to practice voice. Imagine your character late to an appointment and stuck on a crowded bus, waiting outside the principal’s office after fighting with a classmate, or taking a roadtrip with someone they really like (or really hate!). How would they react? What are they thinking to themselves, and how? How do they interact with the others in the scenerio? DO they interact with the others in the scenerio?
For example, an introverted worrywart stuck on a crowded bus might keep to him/herself, working him/herself into a tizzy in which thoughts become more and more frantic (and consequently appear in short/clipped/incomplete sentences), whereas an extravert who’s not particularly worried about making this appointment might converse with the old lady across the way or pick a fight with to him/her. Their internal monologues would sound very different – and even MORE different when you add details like the fact that the first narrator is a recent immigrant from Guatamala whose English is perfect but who reverts to Spanish in times of stress, or that the second thinks he’s hilarious and so makes constant bad jokes, both out loud and in his head.
My main character in my MG novel does not get along with her mother very well, so one of the scenerios I wrote was driving down to Puebla, Mexico from Texas. I found that she was very grumpy and snarky in her head (in a very different way than say, a 17-year-old would be) – and sometimes pleasant, sometimes a brat to her mother, depending on what she was trying to achieve.
It was also important for me to practice scenes in which she interacted with different characters, because, for example, she refuses to speak Spanish around her mother regardless of the fact that she’s fluent because her mother is so desperate for her to ’embrace her culture’, and she wants to hurt her mother. As a consequence of this, she speaks no Spanish in scenes with her mother, but plenty in scenes with other characters, including her friend, an American boy who’s desperate to fit in with his Mexican classmates and consequently squeezes as many Mexican (and general Spanish) idioms into his speech as possible.
All this practice has helped me to find the voice of my narrator, a bright, confused, cheeky twelve-year-old Mexican-American girl. It still needs some tweaking, but it’s getting there.
How do you find your characters’ voices?