The Madness of Character Voice

The Madness of Character Voice

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars (Photo credit: TheNerdDilettante)

I am about 16,000 words into the revisions of Stolentime. I’ve got self-doubts plaguing my brain, but I know that’s a normal part of revisions because in spite of knowing what needs to be changed, you still wonder if those changes are good enough, or could they be made better. But I’m not going to panic because the next step after this revision will be line edits, then proofreading on a hard copy, then making the changes on this Surface. Novels are malleable, critique is mandatory, so Stolentime has a chance. It will not die. I had these doubts with When Stars Rise, the sequel to When Stars Die, but the freelance editor loved parts of it, regardless. It just de-railed in the middle, but I’m more experienced and outlining can prevent that de-railing.

In any case, one interesting thing I’m noting throughout these revisions is how I keep slipping out of Gene’s voice. I am so used to writing stories that take place in the 19th century, so both narrative and speech are very formal, even for teenagers. Gene is a 21st century boy, self-aware and intelligent, so he doesn’t really slip into slang or does he speak like someone in Pride and Prejudice. For example, from the rough draft of Stolentime:

I was too busy picking at my nails as a tight feeling began blooming in my chest, realizing I hadn’t been out in a while due to my social anxiety.

One thing I realized as I was reading this sentence was that I slip away from Gene’s voice just by using the word ‘blooming.’ I’m not saying boys can’t use the word ‘blooming,’ but it’s not likely. So I had to chop this sentence up with an axe to come up with this:

I’m too busy picking at my nails as a tight feeling begins to expand in my chest over the realization that I haven’t been out in a while due to social anxiety.

Notice the tense shift too because I decided to bring Gene’s anxiety to the present instead of leaving it in the past to bring a more immediate feeling. But Gene is more likely to use expand than bloom. Since I am very much about the art of writing itself too, the sentence is still slightly formal because, well, Gene is intelligent. He’s a freaking smart kid who knows his literature, and so his thoughts and speech are going to be influenced by what he reads in literature. He’s definitely not Hazel from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (which, in my opinion as I’m currently reading it, is trying too hard to be philosophical), but he’s still a bright kid.

So I have to be constantly aware of Gene’s voice since I am so used to writing 19th century voices. It’s a bit difficult too, because there are times when I catch myself being formal, and then other times, when I re-read, I find sentences that are too formal and use words that are perhaps a bit too colorful for a 21st century kid.

Do you guys have any trouble with the voices of your characters?

15 thoughts on “The Madness of Character Voice

  1. It’s funny you posted this today. I just started the fourth draft of my latest story today, the draft I’ve dubbed “the dialogue pass,” so voice is on my mind. I’m trying to make my two main characters sound distinct from each other, and I think (THINK) I’ve mostly succeeded. If I’ve failed, I blame it on my long stint of not writing. Still breaking off the rust.

    Besides, the characters are married. You have to expect a little voice blending here and there, right?

    I didn’t think too much about voice when I started the story, so it’s all coming out during revisions. Might have to change that approach next time. Truth be told, I don’t think I gave it much thought in my past works.

    1. I didn’t think about voice too much in When Stars Die. It just came naturally to me. In fact, When Stars Die wasn’t much of a struggle to write. But it’s Stolentime where I have to be careful, just because of my affinity for 19th century everything. Of course, I haven’t received line edits yet, so who knows?

  2. I have a trouble writing my male character’s voices… I tend to sound girly by default, so it’s easy to get lost when I’m writing them and then go back later and say “WTF was I thinking?” My girls I don’t have such a problem with. I do tend to write rather informal, but it works with most of the heroine’s I write because they’re very informal people for the most part. I’d probably have issues writing a female who was very formal for any length of time–i’d slip back into informal after 5 minutes. XD

    1. I have that problem when I’m writing a male character, too, especially in first-person. The one I’m working on now is very different from me in many ways, so it’s been a really interesting challenge!

      1. Gene is my first male main character, and I’m just concentrating on writing him as a person who happens to be male, not a male person. it’s just my belief that guys and gals aren’t as different as society has led us to believe.

    2. When it comes to writing guys and gals, I just keep it in my mind that people are people. We both ogle over the opposite sex (or same sex), we all have desires, fears, weaknesses, and strengths, and we’re all just human. Now of course there are girls who have a distinct voice that is very arguably feminine, just as there are guys with an arguably masculine voice, but then I’ve met guys in my life whose voice doesn’t differ from my own, so I just write guys as people. I don’t worry about whether or not they sound like guys.

      1. I try not to worry about it, but sometimes I’ll run across a book where I can actually tell the author’s gender (regardless of the POV) just by reading the voice they put into it, and it irritates me to no end. It’s one of those things where it’s hard to pinpoint why it sounds male/female, but when it does, you know. I hate that it happens to me too XD

    3. I know what you mean. I haven’t attempted to write from a male perspective, but I will eventually. I do agree that there are many similarities between males and females, but I do think there are enough differences to make it difficult to write from that point of view. Not as many as some like to make out but enough to cause some anxiety when writing. Some guys hide their feelings because it’s what society expects of them.
      Of course, it also depends on what type of guy you are trying to portray. Is he a sensitive soul, etc? Thinking beyond cliched gender traits will help here.
      What genre do you write in?

      1. I hope around a lot, but i tend to stick to sci fi / fantasy / dystopian with a bit of romance for good measure. I think the real problem between differentiating the voice between a male/female character is that the differences are few, and very subtle, .it’s easy to miss them and harder to pinpoint them–and if you do manage to not include them, people pick up on it, even if they can’t figure out -why- exactly it sounds wrong.

  3. I’m having a very similar problem at the moment, actually.
    I’ve realized that it’s EXTREMELY difficult for me to write more ‘contemporary’ books. (You’d never know it by reading my blog, haha).
    It’s definitely a challenge trying to get through it and make it work well.

    I wish you luck with that. 🙂

    1. I wish you luck too! I’m reading contemporary right now though (The Fault in Our Stars, obviously), so it’s helping me to remain in Gene’s voice. And, of course, line edits can always even out any slips in voice.

  4. Amber I am trying to write dialogue for a twelve year old girl from a grammar school. Posh but not too posh. Spending time in the canteen as volunteer is a great place for me to listen to how kids talk to each other or at each other as the case may be. Thanks for bringing this topic up I enjoyed the post.

    1. Your welcome! I dance with middle school and high school guys and find that I don’t talk too differently from them. I’ve got the maturity they don’t, but the relating is still there.

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