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Your Character’s Voice

by Sarah Sundin (@sarahsundin)

I’m a California girl. I’m ashamed to admit I use the word like as filler on a regular basis. My young-adult children use vocabulary not even known in the rest of the country. If I were to write all my novels in my natural voice, I’d be very limited in geography and era.

When we speak of “voice” in writing, we usually mean the unique sound of the individual writer. The way you know in a matter of pages whether you’re reading Austen or Hemingway or Poe.

Author voice? Character voice? How to make them both work in your novel. #amwriting #ACFWBlog Via @sarahsundin Click To Tweet

Author voice develops over time. When we first begin writing, we imitate our favorite authors or write as we were taught in school. But as we become comfortable, our personal voices emerge. We each have certain tones we take, phrasing we prefer, and vocabulary we’re drawn to. Some of us can’t help but include romance or family drama or humor. Those elements define our writing.

When I began writing The Sea Before Us, I encountered a new challenge—I had to delve deeper into character voice. My hero, Wyatt Paxton, comes from a small town in Texas. My heroine, Dorothy Fairfax, was born and raised in London. My 2018 California voice did not fit. Even the 1940s voice that’s developed in my previous nine novels did not fit.

Ideally, when we write in deep point-of-view, our characters’ voices become ours. We choose words, phrasing, metaphors, and imagery that are meaningful to them. We describe the setting, the action, and other characters using their attitudes, preferences, and background.

If you write stories set in a different era or culture than your own, this stretches you further. In writing World War II novels, I have to be careful not to let modern words, phrases, and attitudes slip into my stories. When I write, I keep a dictionary that includes year of first use and my copy of English Through the Ages close by.

But Wyatt and Dorothy stretched me even further. For my tall Texan, I had to use words like y’all, reckon, and fixing, which, like, don’t come, like, naturally to me, you know? I had to view London through the eyes of someone who had never left Texas before 1941. And I had to infuse him with slow-talking, chivalrous, honest-to-a-fault ways.

For my Dorothy, I binge-watched Foyle’s War, analyzing the dialogue for vocabulary, phrasing, and music of English speech. I also read firsthand accounts of British people during the war, looking for the attitudes they held toward the events and people around them—especially those impudent Yankee invaders. And when we visited England, I observed the people for the ways that make them English.

So Dorothy is a fast-talking young lady who can hop on and off the Underground with ease. She prizes reserve, which means tempering her boisterous personality, and she values privacy. Family matters are private. Faith is private. So when Wyatt prays out loud in public during an air raid, Dorothy thinks it isn’t quite proper…and yet she finds it soothing.

Although our author voice maintains consistency from book to book, each novel should have a unique voice as well—because the point-of-view characters will have their unique voices. When we delve deeply into our characters, their voices will shine through ours.

Sarah Sundin is the author of ten novels, including The Sea Before Us.  Her novels When Tides Turn and Through Waters Deep were named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” A mother of three, Sarah lives in California. Please visit her at www.sarahsundin.com.

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8 Responses to Your Character’s Voice

  1. Janice Laird says:

    Wonderful post! Looking forward to reading what you’ve done!

  2. Sarah Sundin says:

    Thank you, Janice!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Great reminders.

  4. susan says:

    Thank you for writing this description of how you work at making each character as authentic as possible. It all makes sense, but that doesn’t mean that all authors think or work at these things. You succeed quite well with character voices, and that is just another of the things that make your books so good. Because I love the WWII period, I have read a number of fiction works set in that time period, and several otherwise quite enjoyable books contain phrases and/or words that are contemporary to this chunk of the 21st century – that sort of thing is not only disappointing, it disrupts your belief in the story. When reading fiction just as when watching a play, you must “suspend disbelief” so you can immerse yourself and make it real. Your books do not have that type of interruption.
    Again…thank you!

  5. Sarah Sundin says:

    Cindy – Thank you! I’m glad you found it useful!

  6. Sarah Sundin says:

    Susan – thank you so much! I’ve found some modern words and phrases have slipped into my books (urgh), but I do the best I can.

  7. Terrific, thought provoking blog with great tips about giving our character unique, authentic dialogue. Love it! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Tisha Martin says:

    Sarah, this was such a fun read. I appreciate how detailed you are in your research, and that alone makes your books much more enjoyable to read. We’ve a connection with the past that’s authentic.