12.2: How to Nail Character Voice in First Person

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

This week we talk about character voice, and how to get it right in First Person. This POV is a strong tool for developing memorable characters. We cover sentence structure, linguistic tweaks, accents, and much more, as well as some exercises you can try out to develop these tools.

This week is also your introduction to our Chicago cast. You’ve already heard from Brandon and Mary; the new voices belong to Mary Anne Mohanraj and Wesley Chu.

Play

Write a page or two of first-person POV in which the character is trying to complete a task. Now write that same task-completion scene from the POV of someone else who is attempting the task.

Perennial, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

15 thoughts on “12.2: How to Nail Character Voice in First Person”

  1. Hi, Writing Excuses Team! Wesley Chu said something about using a TTS(text to speech) to help with revisions and rewrites. Could we get the name of the software he uses?

    1. I use text to speech as well and find it super helpful. My favorite is Voice Dream Reader. I love it because it allows me to listen to my writing like an audiobook while I drive, allows me to save multiple files, and lets me use a lot of different voices. It’s incredibly helpful and more than worth the cash. I have the iOS version. It’s also available on Android.

  2. An interesting way to look at how different people can have different voices even when they come from what looks like a pretty similar background: Go to the forums for a hobby group, even something smallish that only has members on a local level, and in the off topic section, ask what they say or sing to their pets. Be prepared to confess your own, people sometimes feel silly putting it down in words. 🙂 When we talk to our pets the weird in us comes out because we have no audience except ourselves really, the pets won’t judge us. It’s one of the closest things to hearing those inner thoughts. Someone you wouldn’t have known was a gamer may be asking the cat if it has a Murloc in it’s belly. Someone who you only see when they are being very serious about keeping club meetings on track might sing old musicals to their dog because it likes to howl along.

  3. I know that this is probably not the place to write it, but I am currently writing a book about a group of characters travelling across a large period for a few months, set in present day.

    I have been trying to figure out how to consider women monthly troubles. How do I write this into a novel that is made for teenagers, yet I want to keep the realism. Should this topic even be discussed in a novel for teenagers.

    I haven’t really seen it as a discussion, or much in novels, but I still think that it is something to consider. I am a guy, and I don’t want to gross out the teenage male audience, but I still want to keep it realistic (From what I know it is terrible to be your time of month without something to help it).

    Any advice would be terrific.

    1. I’ve had similar questions myself regarding situations that are real for my characters. I find that when my head clears Iit always comes down to one thing. Is it important to the story? Does this thing do anything to help the story to progress, or does spending time on it actually take away from the story?

    2. Unless it is relevant to your plot in some extraordinary way, I would just file that one under “people assume it happens” and / or “they don’t think about it and don’t really need to.” There is a lot of suspension of disbelief involved in the reading and writing of fiction. We assume that characters eat, breathe, go to the bathroom, drink water, etc. We don’t necessarily need to see it on the page. Just my take.

    3. With particular regard to the female character’s “monthly troubles,” I think it is actually really helpful to include it.
      A) It normalizes menstruation for young female readers who may still feel ashamed about it.
      B) It normalizes menstruation for young male readers, who can learn that it isn’t disgusting or weird.
      C) It comes with interesting side effects that can actually flesh out some of your character interactions and make them fully realized.

      When I was a teenager, reading fantasy novels actually helped me to stop being ashamed of my own natural cycle, because authors like Tamora Pierce and Alison Croggon normalized it for me.
      Just my two cents.

      1. Oh thank you. I will check out these two authors. I was concerned with A and C mostly. I had read somewhere that it was non-existant in most literature. For C), I believe it would allow me to further plot and characters a bit. I was mainly worried that it might put off some readers.
        Through all the comments I have come to conclusion that I will include it as a minor part of my novel, and see with alpha readers if it is too much.

        Thank you all.

        And to Emily I will check out those two authors.

    4. Margaret Atwood uses menstruation, or hormone cycles, in The Year of the Flood and Madd Addam (MaddAddam trilogy books #2 and #3) as part of the plot. The Crakers can sense when a female is ovulating, which makes sense for those characters. She did it in a way that wasn’t gross, although the books themselves are a bit disturbing in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic way.

  4. The Chicago Four? That’s right, Brandon and Mary got together with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Wesley Chu to talk about how to make first person voices memorable. Word choice, phrasing, attitude — I don’t have to be snarky? Nope, just dial up the too factor, and see what happens! And now, the transcript is available for your perusal, either in the archives or over here

    http://wetranscripts.livejournal.com/125509.html

    Live (well, actually, recorded) from Chicago! It’s the Chic Foursome!

  5. Woot, comments are working again! Used to listen years ago, finally at a point where I can easily tune into podcasts again. (oy, the archive binge…)

    Anyways, I wanted to make a couple of comments. On the idea of the master painters learning by copying the old masters, there was an author, (I want to say it was Poul Anderson, but i’ve slept since then) who in an interview said that the way they got past writers block was to grab a random book by someone else, grab a page at random, and start typing, copying what was on the page. After a paragraph or so, the story would mutate and they’d put the book down and keep typing. I liked the idea, and have heard that simile of students learning by painting, so long ago in the early days of the internet, I had a writing group I ran for a while do an exercise several times where I would assign a few pages from a particular book, and everyone had to rewrite that scene themselves. It was always quite interesting to see the different takes, especially phrases or terminology that everyone kept, and what everyone threw away.

    Also, on the idea of being careful with who you read to get into voice yourself, Stephen King, in a forward to Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird stories, mentioned a folk saying his mother was fond of, “Milk tends to taste like whatever it sat next to in the refrigerator.” And he mentioned that he has, on purpose, used reading a book whos tone and sound he wanted, while writing his own.

  6. Yeah, I’m currently writing a black man living in Baltimore. The dialect of the people around him are quite funny.

    Good podcast

  7. I’m reading Stephen King’s “Delores Claiborne” right now, and that’s an excellent example of first person. I’d love to ask him how he studied all the idioms he placed in his book.

      1. Absolutely, Jason. After reading that, I completely changed my structure of the story I’m writing. I loved that book so much. I imagine I’ll read it every few years

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