Hearing voices—getting characters to sound like themselves

You have to be a bit mad to be a writer. In fact, you even have to hear voices.

English: Pälksaari psychiatric hospital Suomi:...
Where people who hear voices are sometimes sent. (Pälksaari Psychiatric Hospital. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has become clearer than ever as I reach a new phase in my current novel.

I had intended to continue with my plow-ahead writing on the way to reaching the 40,000 words promised as my ROW80 goal by the end of June.

My novel had other ideas. On May 24—11,278 words short of my goal—my draft declared that, with the exception of the crucial final chapter, it was done.

Because I am old-fashioned enough to require the tactile feedback of paper when doing certain kinds of editing, I printed the draft. I then discovered two problems.

  1. The character who owns the final chapter isn’t talking.
  2. Several of the characters sound suspiciously like the same person—me.

To understand the significance of these problems, you have to know that the novel is structured as six intertwined first-person narratives.

I’m tackling problem #2 first by taking a purely technical approach. First, I’ll describe the type of language each character would use. Would the character use short, long, or run-on sentences? Many adjectives or few? Stay on point or ramble? Remain prim-lipped or swear like a sailor? Next I’ll list their interests and affinities. What would they focus on when describing a scene? Then I’ll edit each character’s sections according to these “rules.” I hope when I’m done that I’ll hear each speaking more clearly in his or her own voice, sounding more like themselves and less like me.

Despite these challenges, I am very glad to have made the decision back in October to go with a first-person narrative.

As for that reticent (recalcitrant?) character in the final chapter, I’m making him wait. Maybe when he sees how much time and attention I’m lavishing on the others, he’ll decide to speak up.

Here are a few interesting perspectives on first-person challenges:

If you write in first person, what are your tricks for capturing your characters’ voices?

11 thoughts on “Hearing voices—getting characters to sound like themselves

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  1. Six POV voices–that would be tricky. I could maybe infuse different voices for up to three, but beyond that I might struggle. I recently posted on my desire to use alternating 1st person and 3rd person POV for my two main characters in my WIP. I’ve seen it done with some books. I’ll need to decide before I finish my outline.

    I’ve been trying to track down my high school short stories since that last post of yours, but I can’t find them. I’ll keep looking. I know I wrote something called “A Witch in the Closet,” and I really want to count how many adverbs I used. 🙂


    1. A witch in the closet–I’m fascinated! Yeah, I may have bitten off more than I can chew with the six voices but I’m going to give it a try. I’d hate to have to switch everything back to third-person and lose the couple of wonderful voices that speak so clearly. I’m sure if I can just get out of the way the others will make themselves heard.


  2. As an exercise, I started a fictional blog, writing posts as if I was each of 3 (and eventually it will be 5) different characters. It really made me realize just how much so many of my characters sound like ME. I think my solution is to acknowledge it… but to exaggerate a different “version” of me. Like the uptight grammar-police me, vs the goofy aluminum-hat-wearing me.


  3. I hear voices, but at times when I really need them to talk, they won’t. It’s frustrating isn’t it. Choosing that narrative is also difficult, I changed mine back from 1st and sometimes regret that. You’ve given me some things to ponder, Audrey. 🙂


    1. My strategy for getting them to talk is, as I said in the blog post–ignore them for a while! I think this has something to do with the ability of the subconscious to work on creative tasks while we are otherwise engaged, if we first send the signal that’s what we need.

      With search and replace it’s a little easier to change back and forth but it does require quite a careful read-through, as I found early on when I switched from third to first. (Not all incidences of the word “her” can be replaced with the character’s name as a possessive…). But thank goodness changing (or changing back again) is easier than in the days of typewritten manuscripts.


      1. I’ve been turning my back on them for a few months now. Still nothing.
        Yes, can you imagine changing with out the aid a PC. Now that would drive us to drink and we’d all be siting in a Paris cafe.


  4. Wow, six first person characters! I’m impressed. That’s way too ambitious for me.

    The problem of the voices in first person, though, is similar to the problem with different voices in dialog. You don’t want third person characters to all sound alike, either. Besides just how they say it, there’s what they say. That can reveal different minds at work, too.


    1. That’s absolutely true about dialogue. I don’t tend to use much dialogue in my work but it’s interesting to think about from that perspective (and maybe a little less scary for me :-)).


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