We've had years to figure out who we are. We're sort of our own biggest experts and yet, trying to come up with a quick, clean summary of our entire personality can still be pretty tricky. But why?
Because humans are complex. We're layers upon layers of characteristics glued together by an uncountable number of experiences. Now don't get me wrong, I've met some pretty dull individuals in my life, but even those people had at least some level of complexity to them. Kind of.
So many writers (me included) struggle with finding ways to make our characters that multi-dimensional. However, the solution begins with something we've all heard before:
Finding the voice.
(without gifs... sorry)
Below are my top seven tips I've picked up from writers I hope to be as good as one day.
1. Know your character's history.
Before you write, figure out who your main character is. I'm not talking about understanding that your MC is a thirteen-year-old girl with brown hair. Sure, that's important, but you have to know more than that. And if you don't, well... maybe you're not ready to write your story.
Imagine what school she goes to. What music she likes. Who her best friends are. Why she has that little scar above her right eye. There are so many questions you could ask (298,870,125,182,002 according to the voice in my head) that can help you come up with a solid back story for your MC. This step can take a while, but it's going to help you when you get to one of the later steps.
2. Determine who your character is talking to.
Once you have your character, figure out who she's telling this story to. This is going to severely affect not only what your character says but how she'll say it. For example, I'm choosing to use who instead of whom all the time because I don't want to come off as a grammatical know-it-all. Probably because I'm as far from a grammatical know-it-all as one person can be.
But let's get back to your character. If you want your brainy MC to be talking to a group of like-minded individuals, she may use words and phrases she wouldn't normally use if she were talking to the general public. And if she's talking to the general public, she might want to explain things so they won't feel dumb.
Then again, maybe she enjoys flaunting her intelligence over the average Joe. Maybe Joe got mad at her for speaking down to her. Maybe she wouldn't stop so he threw a soda can at her! HOLY CASSEROLEY, maybe that's how she got her scar!
Sorry. My head-voice got a little loud there. But my point remains--this is where knowing your MC is important.
3. Establish the POV.
This sounds like a simple decision to make, but it's not. The point of view is going to wildly affect how your story is told. A lot of this will come down to personal taste, but don't just decide on first person present because that's what the last book you read was told in.
Figure out how your story will best be told. I've heard editors warn against second person, but hey--if you want to write that, then you go for it. You know what's best for your story.
4. Vary the distance.
I learned this at my first conference. I'd never even thought about it and when Jordan Brown was talking to the crowd about this concept, it blew our minds. The distance he was talking about was directly related to the POV. Third person will allow more wiggle room for the distance. First person present will be very limited. Here's what he meant:
Every line you write needs to push the story along. Every line needs to be carefully chosen so no space is wasted on the page. A rhythm needs to be established and within that rhythm, we can step further away from or closer to your MC's head-voice. For example, you may write a line like this:
The last few leaves could be seen on the tree's branches.
With this, we're pretty far out of the MC's head. We're not getting a smattering of voice here, but we are finding some important information about our character. You'll understand what I mean when you get to the next tip. Back to our story. The next line you write may take us closer to getting in the MC's head. Sort of like:
They dangled by their stems like little swatches of brightly-colored fabric.
Now we're getting an idea of what our MC is noticing. We're closer to hearing that head-voice. Which leads us to the closest we can get--inside the character's mind. Just take a listen:
The red was wrong. Too much crimson. A color like that would never look good as a pair of socks.
Now we're hearing what the MC is thinking. That head-voice is coming through loud and clear. However, staying here too long can be almost be burdensome. We don't want to read a book where we stay the same distance away from the MC no more than we want to read a book where every sentence has ten words, do we?
No, we don't, head-voice, so shut up.
5. Find out what's important to your character.
So many of the decisions you'll have made by now are going to be based on what's important to your character. Let's say she absolutely hates watermelon flavored candy but she'd do anything to save a calico kitten. Knowing this is going to help you figure out what she'll notice around her. And even more importantly, it'll help you figure out what she won't notice.
I know we've all heard to write through the MC's senses. Tell us what she sees, hears, feels (without using those filter words, of course) whenever possible. However, if you choose to tell us all of those things all of the time, we're actually getting less of what's important to your character.
In tip number four, our MC noticed the leaves first. And then the colors. And then her mind went right to the red and how the color would be awful as a pair of socks. We've read three lines and I already know quite a bit about her. If I were using her as my MC I'd know why she thought that about the crimsony red because I would've developed that part of her back story.
Think about how you personally describe things. I'm extremely visual and I've got a nose that borders on bloodhound. If I were describing something, I may talk about how it smells and how it reminds me of the time our dog ate tinsel and pooped out silver-lined turds.
Okay, so... I'm not really sure what I'd be describing there. My head-voice says cafeteria meatloaf. He may be right.
6. Be authentic.
This is where research will come in handy. You need to understand how your character would actually speak. This will be determined by time period, nationality, age, intelligence, and so many other things. I wish there was an easy way to go about finding all of this out, but there's not. If I wanted to write a character who lived in 1800s England, I'm going to have a heck of a lot harder time than if I chose 1980s Tennessee. Because I've got that one down pat.
My fellow MGMinded bloggers have written some great advice on middle grade voice authenticity. If you haven't read those posts, go do that.
And then when you're finished reading those, go read some books. Like, a lot of them. And in your genre and target age range, too. When in doubt, take advice from those better at it than you. Which is exactly what I've been doing my entire life. I'm ignoring my head-voice right now because I'm pretty sure it's saying something mean.
7. Be patient.
The hardest one of all to master. Don't get frustrated if you don't nail it the first time around. Very few do and many who say they did are lying buttholes. So keep at it, explore different methods, don't be afraid to fail, and enjoy the journey of finding the perfect voice.