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4 Steps To Nailing Your Character's Voice

When it comes to young adult novels, an authentic, captivating voice is incredibly important. Voice needs to feel real and consistant. It needs to feel true to the character. Voice can do a lot to pull a reader in and keep them reading.

So how do you nail your character's voice? Well, everyone has different answers to that question. Everyone has different tricks or methods. But here are four tips for helping find your character's voice and making sure it feels authentic.

1. Ask Questions

The more you know about your character, the more you have to work with as far as establishing their voice. People speak differently, think differently, and act differently from one another. Is your character filthy rich or dirt poor? Did they grow up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or a trailer park? What kind of education did they receive? These things are going to impact your character's voice, and knowing the answers is important. A filthy rich, Manhattan socialite with a private school education likely won't use slang like "ain't." That's not to say a poor character would, but it's probably more likely.

Social status isn't the only thing that impacts voice, of course.  The little things matter, too. Is your character in the Chess Club? Or are they a jock? Is it likely that he or she would know sports lingo or would they not know the difference between a touchdown and a homerun? Is your character popular? Or an outcast? What's his or her favorite subject? Favorite kind of music? All of these things - all of these questions and more - can help lead to your character's voice.  So ask questions. Ask lots of them.

Consider Setting

This sort of goes along with asking questions.  It's important to consider where your story takes place because location impacts how we talk. For example, where I grew up in Kentucky, people referred to all fizzy, caffeinated drinks as "coke" - even if it was really Pepsi.  But here in New York, it's "soda."  In other parts of the country it's "pop." Another difference is how people tell time. In the South we say, "ten to five" or "ten 'til five." But here in New York, people say "ten of five."

These are little things. They're not majorly important, but knowing where your story is set and how your character would speak can really make the voice feel that much more authentic and real.

Now, don't take this too far. Just because your narrator lives in California doesn't mean you should have her say "like" all the time. Just because your character lives in the South doesn't mean you should make them use improper grammar - that's more offensive than authentic.  But we'll talk about this again in later.

It's All About Attitude

A huge part of voice isn't just the words you use, but how you use them. Knowing your character's personality goes a long way. Attitude plays a big part in voice.  For instance, if your character is a Negative Nancy, she'll use more pessimistic sentences and exclamation points would be rare. The type of humor your character uses can also solidify the voice. Do they gravitate to sarcasm and irony?

Find your character's attitude and show it. Find ways to exemplify who they are through the words on page. Whether it's snark or sweetness, you can show those aspects of your character's personality with their voice - and it'll go much farther than just telling us they are snarky or sweet. Show, don't tell, remember? Voice is a great way to do that.

Don't Force It

While voice is important, the quickest way to ruin it is by trying too hard.  The over use of slang or funky grammar will be more distracting than compelling. Don't force the voice. In order to be authentic, it also needs to be natural. You don't need a colloquial expression in every sentence. You don't have to use words like "duh" or "totes" constantly to show that your character is a teenager. Try for authenticity, but don't try so hard that you loose your character beneath all the words.

No one can tell you how to create your character's voice. Likely that process will be different for every character you write. Ultimately, that's up to you. But hopefully some of these tips will help you nail down that voice and solidify it.  So good luck, and happy writing!
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. Interesting and helpful tips, thank you! Will definitely give my characters some work and use this post to my advantage C:

  2. Good info! I actually made little questionnaires I would fill out from my character's point of view... Now that I think about it, it's quite creepy because it's almost like having a personality disorder. But it helped me keep consistency with my character's voice and POV.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Suzanne @ YA Nation

  3. Love it! Voice has always been the hardest thing for me to nail.

  4. This is great advice. I'm writing Sci-fi at the moment and vocabulary and voice are key to keeping it real and fresh.

  5. A good intro Linguistics or Sociolinguistics class can be very useful at least for separating 'dialect features' from 'stereotypes'. It's also fun to spot your own dialect features. Do you have double modals? Positive anymore? Ash tensing? Also, how dialect works when it interacts with register is very cool. Someone's going to talk to their family differently than they talk to their teachers or bosses, or they might not. If they do, that says one thing about their character, and if they don't, that says something completely different!


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Item Reviewed: 4 Steps To Nailing Your Character's Voice Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger