How to Create Strong Character Voices
Questions? Something to add? Leave a comment below!
Lauren: I’m doing great. Thanks so much.
Sarah: That’s awesome. For those of you who don’t know, Lauren is the author of middle grade novels WOLF HOLLOW and BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA. Lauren, can you tell us a bit about your books?
Lauren: Sure. I had written for adults before writing WOLF HOLLOW and in fact, I thought I was writing WOLF HOLLOW for an adult audience. Or just for an audience, not aware that it was going to be eventually marketed for young people. And I’m thrilled that it is. And then I was asked to do another for that audience and so I wrote BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA. They are both books that, according to what I’ve heard from lots of people across the world, do appeal to a wide variety of ages, but they are I think mostly for young readers. They both have strong female protagonists. They are both historical fiction, but they’re really just stories about strong girls, and how they make their way through the world.
Sarah: Just out of curiosity, you said you at first thought it would be an adult novel and then it was marketed for younger people. Can you say a little bit more about that, like how did that shift happen?
Lauren: Yeah, I was really surprised because I had had one book published for adults some time ago through Random House and so when I wrote WOLF HOLLOW, it was really just a story I wanted to tell based on my family’s history and my mother’s childhood growing up on a farm in the 1940s. And so I wrote it as I would any book for a reader not really thinking too much about audience and when my agent said she thought it was for young people, I was really surprised. Pleased, but very surprised. She said, well, it has a strong young protagonist. It’s the kind of book that young people will find engaging and interesting so why not? I said, sure why not? And then Penguin offered me a two-book deal with the second book also being for that audience. And I found that as I wrote BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA, once again I was just writing a story without too much attention to the age of the reader, but because it was in the first person from a young person’s point of view, it naturally sort of came out as a read for a primarily younger audience.
Sarah: Oh, wow. That’s very interesting. You mentioned that in your stories you have these strong protagonists. Can you tell us, first things first, what makes a character’s voice strong?
Lauren: That’s a good question. For me, I spend some time with the character before I ever start writing about her. I imagine her, I listen in on her conversations with other people, I spy on her, I really get to know her as a character, and then when I begin to write, her voice comes out pretty much as any voice would when you meet a human being on the street and you talk to them. Their voice is there. It’s kind of the same way with a character if you know and trust that character from the beginning. And I read my work aloud to myself as I’m writing it and I can really hear the intonations, the pacing, the syntax, and how the voice suits the character in really important ways. So a character may be somewhat shy and silent, but strong inside so when she does speak, what she says is important and people tend to listen to her even though she’s not a flamboyant character, or a pushy character, or a loud character. She’s a strong character and so her voice is as well. But I can’t, you know, a lot of these are such organic processes that when I try and explain them I’m not sure I’m doing a good job. All I know is I hear that character’s voice in my head and I write it down. That’s pretty much the simplest way I can explain it.
Sarah: Right. For you, would you say… Do you hear that voice before you even start writing? Is it something you plan, like this character is going to sound like this, or is it something that you discover as you’re writing the story?
Lauren: I absolutely discover it as I’m writing and that’s true of everything: plot and characterization, all conflict. I do start with setting. I know the setting before I begin and I have a pretty good idea of who the main character is and what motivates her and kind of the beginning of her story. But I don’t want to know anything before I write it because it takes the fun out of it for me. If it’s an adventure for me, hopefully it’s an adventure for the reader, and so I just pretty much follow the character’s lead. But I can only do that if I know her somewhat in advance and if I can hear that voice and if I have a really strong place to begin.
Sarah: So kind of off that, with the strong place to begin, how do you personally go about crafting strong character voice? So you mentioned you kind of have a setting in mind. What are the very raw, organic, first beginning steps look like for you?
Lauren: In both cases so far, and I’ve just finished another book where this is also true set in the 30s, the character has to know herself well as well and she has to enter into this book with some very important things she wants to accomplish. And so if I watch and listen to her as she engages on this adventure and makes this first deliberate step forward, I can really hear her thoughts. I can hear her very sort of private way of approaching the conflict in her life and so that when it comes time for her to speak out loud to other characters, I know what to say on her behalf. If I don’t know her and her motivations and her inner conflicts well enough before she begins to speak, I can’t really give her a strong voice. So knowing the character pretty well, even if I don’t know where she’s going to go or what she’s going to encounter, that’s really important. It’s amazing where I hear that voice. I hear it when I’m in the shower, when I’m gardening, when I’m cleaning, when my hands are engaged, and I’m away from the computer or the pen is when I really get to spend time with the characters before I begin writing. And they reveal themselves to me sort of in this… it’s almost like a magical process. They don’t exist one minute and the next minute they do and the more I allow them to develop, the more I’ll fall in love with them, the more intimate our relationship is, and the more clearly I can speak for them.
Sarah: Oh wow, I think that’s really interesting what you said about how it’s when you’re away from the computer and just doing other things and they’re with you and revealing more of themselves to you. It’s like getting to know a friend, I guess, just like getting to know them on a daily basis.
Lauren: That’s right, and it’s also a lot like the way memory works. You know, you can be planting petunias and you’re remembering a scene from your childhood that happened decades ago- in my case decades ago- and I can hear the voices. I can hear my own voice and the voices of my friends as clear as a bell and I go back to that world. I get immersed in that world right then and there. So it’s the same way with characters. They are real when you create them in your head and your heart. They are real and when you’re watching them, you are with them and you are hearing them. So I suggest that writers not sit at the computer and labor over things, that they go do something else and they pay attention to the character who’s forming inside them.
Sarah: When it comes time to actually sit down and put writing to a page, do you find that it takes you several tries to get that character voice that you’ve been spending so much time with or does it just kind of flow all in one sitting?
Lauren: It pretty much flows all in one. The more difficult part comes when other characters join the scene and I’m hearing their voices as well. I really have to be careful to give them distinct and separate voices and so it sometimes happens that I go back and I read that work aloud and I hear that my characters sound too similar. So I very intentionally think about what I can do to give them distinct voices and I do that revision. But as far as the protagonist goes, and even other very main characters go, if I know them well enough, when they appear on the page they come with their own voices intact. But I really do have to pay close attention. You have to read out loud, you have to hear their voice. You don’t notice things otherwise. The syntax, the pacing, how they use the vernacular, just sentence structure, sentence length, all of that contribute to the voice of a character. So paying close attention and reading out loud really, really help to develop strong character voices.
Sarah: Do you always read your own work out loud?
Lauren: Always. Always and I always find things. I can think that a chapter is done, that a book is done, that a sentence is done, and I’m really happy with it. And then I go away for a little while, I come back and I read it out loud, and I change a thousand things. It’s one of the most valuable tools there is, I really believe that, hearing the work.
Sarah: You mentioned that when it comes to other characters and juggling multiple voices, sometimes you then have to go back and make them more distinct. Can you say a little bit more about that? How do you deal with a bunch of different, distinct, and unique voices?
Lauren: Well, it’s the same way you do in life. If you’re in a room with ten people, yes, you recognize their voices, the intonation, the timbre and all that, but you also recognize the patterns in their words, the way they use slang, whether they say um and ah and like and you know and, of course, when you’re writing, you edit out a lot of those kinds of things. Except there are peculiarities each person has, his or her own distinct way of communicating, and if that way of communicating matches the way the character behaves and his or her background and life story, if they all go together as a package then you don’t have the problem of the voices all sounding the same because the characters aren’t all the same. But it’s a matter of not putting words in their mouth, but of letting them speak for themselves. If you are true to your characters, if they stay in character, they will speak in their own voices and you should have no problem hearing those voices as distinct.
Sarah: You had mentioned earlier about how even if you have a quieter, softer-spoken character, their strength can shine through in their voice. But I think more often than not when people think of strong voices, they think of more loud or bold characters. So how do you make those soft-spoken characters really strong in their voices?
Lauren: I think a lot of it is setting the scene. If you have your character acting in a strong way and doing things that establish her as a leader and someone who deserves attention then when she opens her mouth to speak, people will listen. And if she saves what’s important, if she’s a relatively quiet character, if she saves what’s important and says it to her audience, whoever that might be, in a way that conveys how strongly she feels about things then I think you get across the sense that she is sort of like a still river running deep. You know, very powerful, if not a very vocal creature. And I know so many people who don’t say much and when they do speak, everyone stops and listens even when they whisper. In fact, sometimes a whisper is louder than anything else so I guess it’s a matter of once again matching the voice to the character. I do tend to write about characters who are, if not soft-spoken, are not flamboyant. They’re just really wise, young, strong, deep, complex characters who tend to deserve an audience and so even adults will pay attention to what they have to say. And I found that young readers really, really like that. They love it when adults take a young character seriously. So yeah, I guess that’s all I can really say about it. It’s such an organic process and maybe it’s a little unrealistic to think that a quiet person is going to get the attention that a loud one does. But think about your own life and how the quiet people are sometimes the ones who have the most important things to say.
Sarah: That’s very true. So you mentioned before that your stories are written in first person. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between strong character voice and choice of point-of-view and narration?
Lauren: Yes, I had never written in the first person before I wrote WOLF HOLLOW. It just came out that way and I was so glad it did because it turns out that’s the way I should be writing. I’m a poet as well and I tend to get too lyrical and I get a little too into my own language when I’m writing in the third person. So especially writing through a young set of eyes, young voice tends to discipline me. So there’s that. The voice of the character is, I think, so much more important than the voice of the narrator, obviously in a first person piece. But the voice of the narrator, of the author, interjecting things and especially from an adult point of view looking back on the scene, distances the reader from the characters. It projects this sort of lapse between them. And that’s okay once in a while, but I really think it’s important that there be the smallest possible distance between a character and the reader. And so first person accomplishes a very tight relationship. A first person narrative that’s in a strong character’s voice really engages readers, especially young ones. The voice of the author of the omniscient narrator can really pull the reader right out of the experience too much so be very, very careful about how much of that you use. But first person, it makes it so much easier to establish a really strong protagonist voice obviously. And for me it’s a wonderful, wonderful experience as an author because I get to be in the skin of that character, in the shoes of that character, looking through that set of eyes and only that set of eyes, speaking with that one strong voice primarily. It’s a very, very powerful experience.
Sarah: Hmm right. You touched on this when you were talking about the narrator, but how do you differentiate the character voice and the author voice? Like is this a character or is this just me in a character?
Lauren: That’s another good one. I have to be careful because I do identify so strongly with that 12-year-old girl, whoever it is I’m writing about, that I have to really return to being a 12-year-old in order to share that voice without it being incongruous, inconsistent, or unrealistic. No 12- year-old girl is going to speak in the voice I have as a 58-year-old woman. I remember what it’s like to be 12. I if I can return to that world, still keeping a lot of what I’ve learned along the way to enable me to write about it, then I will be far more successful in writing about say Annabelle’s life in WOLF HOLLOW or Crow’s life in BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA. It’s really a matter of stepping out of who you are and returning to who you were or, for many other writers, to a world you haven’t actually inhabited yourself. I tend to write fairly autobiographical work through these characters. I write in places where I’ve spent time, I write about situations I’ve experienced myself, and I tend to write about conflicts that have characterized my own life. So you’re right though, I have to be very careful I don’t take over that character and just simply use her as a bullhorn.
Sarah: What are some signs that a character’s voice is not as strong as it should be or as you want it to be?
Lauren: I don’t know about strength, but I noticed that the voice of the character is less successful if I have them making speeches. If I have to make pronouncements, I have to break up the speech the way we do in our own lives. Right now you and I in an interview are talking in chunks. The next time you have a conversation with somebody, if you pay attention to how the patterns work and how the dynamics work, you find that it’s a lot of fragments and overlapping and interruptions and that’s the way real life is. You can’t- well you can- but I tend not to do that exactly in books because it would be frustrating and disorienting, but I do try and make the voices of my characters real by putting them in situations that are real where there’s a lot of give and take. So you’ll rarely see me write in big long chunks when I’m writing dialogue. It’s boring too; you need a lot of interplay.
Sarah: One piece of advice that I’ve always received when it comes to writing dialogue and getting a really strong voice is to just eavesdrop on other conversations, like if I’m at a coffee shop or at a park or something. Is that something you do? Do you listen to other conversations?
Lauren: I used to do it very actively as a young writer. I would be sitting in a restaurant with my husband and he’d go, “Are you there?” I’d be eavesdropping, I’d even be looking at them which is rude but I’d be so completely enthralled with the fight I was hearing over here or the people next to me talking about their children. It’s like sitting at the mall and watching people go by and listening to them, you’re training as a writer, you’re really paying attention to how people interact. Whereas just as a painter will take liberties with color and light to bring back to a painting what Mother Nature intended in the scene, so will a writer take liberties or do things differently than you might encounter in a face to face situation in real life. But if you pay attention to the way people behave and the way they speak to each other, you will have plenty of fodder for your books and the skills you need to take what’s in your head and your heart and put it on the page.
Sarah: What are some character voices from stories that you’ve read that you just really love that were so memorable to you?
Lauren: I spent some time thinking about that. I hadn’t deliberately thought about that and when I when I did, I realized that the actual character voices that resonated most with me were… Huckleberry Finn was one. Huck’s voice was so authentic and real. Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. That’s a very, very distinctive voice. In SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, which I read and taught when I was teaching high school, it’s not the voice of the character Billy Pilgrim that resonated with me or stayed in my memory, but it’s the occasional voice of Kurt Vonnegut himself when he decides to interject from his author’s point of view. Even the one word like, “Listen.” It was very powerful how he did that, how it he added that layer to his book. Offred from THE HANDMAID’S TALE which I haven’t seen the movie yet, or the TV series, I’m looking forward to that, but I found Margaret Atwood’s book to be very, very powerful and the voice of that character to be very strong. And then of course, the voice of the mother bunny in THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown and other voices from children’s books, including Peter Rabbit and Charlotte in CHARLOTTE’S WEB. They’re all over the place, but yeah, it made me really think about what makes for a good strong voice and usually it’s that it comes from a good strong character.
Sarah: This is something that I’m personally curious about. You’ve written several books now. Do old voices ever come back to you when you’re spending time with new voices? Like you’re spending time with this new character, but do you find that this old character is still hanging out with you as you garden or as you cook?
Lauren: I think so, in fact, I know so. I spent a lot of time with Annabelle from WOLF HOLLOW and more with her than anyone I think because she was so much a reflection of my own family’s history and my mother’s life and my own life. And so she really feels like a part of the family. That’s true though as well of Crow in BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA even though she was really truly a fictional character. I think because as I said I spent so much time in her skin. Looking at the world through her eyes that she is forever going to be like a daughter to me. They both are daughters. My new book, which features a girl named Ellie on a mountain in Maine in 1933, I had to be very careful because she started to sound too much like Annabelle and to behave too much like Annabelle. And so I really had to pause for a moment and think about how she was her own person in her own right, sort of like sisters. Sisters in a family are very similar, but also very distinctive and it makes those sisters crazy when they’re all lumped together as one multi-headed creature. So each of my characters sort of clamored for attention when it was her turn and it really is my responsibility as an author to really hone my attention and really give her that moment on the page. So Ellie got pretty mad at me a couple of times when, what I call a character drift, I ended up coming back to other work. But sure, when I’m gardening, when I’m lying in bed at night trying to sleep and forget about the problems of the world, I visit with my fictional daughters. So it’s a lot of fun.
Sarah: Wow, I really love that. And I love what you said about giving her her moment on the page and really drawing out her unique voice because I find that when you spend so much time with one voice, for me, all my other characters start to sound like that person and it’s like, well maybe they’re all the same! But it’s really cool to draw out their distinctness.
Lauren: That’s exactly right. There are similarities between them, at least in my case. It’s all historical fiction. They’re all strong girls. They have conflicts they’re trying to deal with in their families, so it does take some work to give them their moment and get to know them better and better and better as the story goes on and what makes them different from the others and let that shine through in their voices.
Sarah: Well, thank you Lauren so much for sharing so much of your wisdom. I love what you said about just spending time with your characters and getting to know them like real people. I love that so much.
Lauren: It’s been my absolute pleasure to talk to you, Sarah. It’s wonderful to be able to examine my own work in a new light when people ask me good questions as you have, and I get a chance to really deliberate about what is otherwise sometimes a pretty organic process, so thank you for the opportunity.
Sarah: And if readers or listeners want to connect with you online, where can they find you?
Lauren: They can go to my website, Lauren Wolk dot com, and I have a Facebook page. They can message me, they can do anything they want. And I also work at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod and they can reach me there by going to that website and looking through my e-mail address. I get lots of e-mails and letters from especially kids, but from people of all ages and I love responding when I can. I do respond as often as I can and I love hearing what they have to say about my work so they’re welcome to get in touch.
Sarah: Amazing. Well, thank you everybody for listening and Lauren, thank you again so much for your time.
Lauren: Thank you! Bye bye.
Sarah: Have a great day!
Lauren Wolk is an award-winning poet and author of the bestselling Newbery Honor–winning Wolf Hollow, described by the New York Times Book Review as “full of grace and stark, brutal beauty.” She was born in Baltimore and has since lived in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Canada, and Ohio. She now lives with her family on Cape Cod. You can visit her at www.laurenwolk.com