Every editor in the world will tell you she’s looking for a manuscript with a strong narrative voice, but creating a rich, complex, and believable character voice is easier said than done. Voice isn’t just the way your character speaks – not just her dialogue or diction or syntax. It’s not just the words she uses, whether she speaks entirely in Valley Girl slang or whether she never uses contractions. It’s not even just her tone, whether it’s sarcastic or sympathetic, cynical or optimistic.
Voice isn’t just what your character says, or how she says it. Voice is about the way your character sees the world – what she sees, what she notices, what she dwells on, what she cares about, and how she explains it to herself.
Consider the Familiar
We all know that a metaphor (or simile) is a comparison between two relatively dissimilar things. But have you ever thought about why we use metaphors? It’s not just to pretty up the language or add poetry to our prose. We use metaphors to explain the inexplicable. We compare the unfamiliar to the familiar in order to help make sense of it to ourselves and our audience.
It’s the second half of that equation – the familiar – that matters to us as we think about character building and voice. What is familiar to your character? What is normal for her? A kid from Manhattan and a kid from rural Iowa will have very different ways of describing a Chicago skyscraper. The New Yorker may say, “It’s almost as tall as the Chrysler building,” while the Iowan might say, “It’s twice as tall as the grain elevator in my town.” The way your character compares the unfamiliar to the familiar gives us a wealth of information about her backgrounds, assumptions, and worldview.
Discovering Your Character’s Dominant Metaphor
I have this theory that most people have what I call a “dominant metaphor” – a primary lens through which they view the world – and if you can figure out their dominant metaphor, you can explain anything to them. Often this dominant metaphor has to do with a person’s job or hobby. For instance, one of my closest friends is a musician, and though he knows almost nothing about the publishing industry, I can say, “I’m in the indie-rock phase of my writing career,” and he knows exactly what I mean. Talking to my father, I’ve started countless sentences with, “It’s like in football, when…”. And when I taught middle school, I always tried to give my students examples that related to their lives. “You know how a cellist has to practice scales? And a basketball player has to practice layups? That’s what freewriting is like for writers.”
Consider your own character: does she have a dominant metaphor? Does she have a job, hobby, or obsession through which she filters most of her thinking? If her best friend were trying to explain something to her, would she say, “It’s like in horseback riding, where you can’t just have the fun of riding the horse – you also have to muck out the stall!” or “You know in the Justin Bieber movie, when he has a sore throat and he has to cancel his show now or possibly miss his big show at Madison Square Garden? That’s how I feel!”
Author Joan Bauer is the master of using her character’s dominant metaphors to create a strong character voice. In her novelHope Was Here, the protagonist uses her experiences as a waitress to help explain the world around her. “Now I believe that the way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach, and, my boy, I’m here to tell you, we are in the heart business. We’re going to reach deep past the menu and into the emotional power of food because a person comes back to a restaurant again and again for one reason only – to feed their soul. ” In Rules of the Road, the protagonist works at a shoe store. “I thought of all the places I was going where I had never been, and wondered how I would manage. But when you sell shoes, you learn first-hand about flexibility.”
Exploring The Prism of Character
Bauer’s characters see the world through the dominant metaphor of their jobs as waitress and shoe saleswoman. Their narrative voices are strong, unique, and appealing. But occupation isn’t the only dominant metaphor available to your character.Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape not just her metaphors, but the way she sees, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes.
Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.
With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.