Recently, I read a book where each chapter was narrated by a different character. The only problem was that two of the characters had virtually indistinguishable ‘voices’ and unless I was starting a new chapter when I picked up the book in the evening — and so could see the character’s name on the chapter opener — I found myself sometimes having to flick back to the start of the chapter to remind myself of who was talking. A real pity as the story itself was compelling and the book would have been a great read if more attention had been paid to the characterisation.
Conversely, we all know when an author has nailed a character. We find ourselves completely immersed in their world; we can hear them, see them in our mind — we believe in them completely. When this happens, we know that the author has mastered the character’s ‘voice’. So, how can this be achieved?
Firstly, you have to know your character as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. You have to know their likes and dislikes, their temperament, their values, their goals, their dreams … Only a fraction of these traits might ever appear in your story, but you still need to know them all so that every word and every action is informed by them. This will go a long way to creating an authentic character who acts from consistently believable motives.
Secondly, you need to know their time period or ‘world’ intimately. What are the customs? What technology is around? What are the speech patterns and expressions of the general population — does this vary between classes, occupations, sects, age groups? If so, how?
Then refine this so that it becomes specific to your character. How do they go about every second of their day? How do they interact with others? What specific turns of phrase are unique to them? What habits — conscious or unconscious — do they have?
Each and every character in the story should be treated in this way so that they are as distinct on the page as they would be if you were meeting them in person. The result should be characters that don’t simply tell your story but make it come to life.
Anouska Jones is our KBR Editor. Mum to a gorgeous little girl, she has nearly twenty years' experience in the book publishing industry. A publishing consultant and editor, Anouska is obsessed by all things to do with words, writing and books.