9 Kick-Ass Exercises to Find Your Character’s Voice (FREE)
© by Alicia Rasley
Creating unique voices for each viewpoint character is essential in creating fiction readers want to read over and over. Unique voices stick with you and generate the best reviews.
Here are 9 exercises to help you discover your viewpoint character(s) voice. Select the ones that appeal most. Get into the mind of your character. Free-write the answer to each question in first-person, as if YOU are the character.
First-person, remember. That will help you get a sense of the character’s voice.
EXERCISE #1: Learning Style
1. How do you learn best? Observation? Participation? Trial and error? Rumination and cogitation? Consulting experts? Writing?
Example to get you started – historical character named Rebecca: “Oh, I think I learn best by observation. I’m an artist– well, I sketch a little, or a lot, I suppose– and so I’m always looking at people and places and things and trying to capture them with my pencil.
I like to imagine what people are like from the way they move and the expressions on their faces. I try not to make judgments until I’ve studied the people, however. So I guess I’m an observer. I’m certainly not really a participant. Of course, I have to participate in all sorts of activities, but given my druthers, I’d sit on the sidelines and watch first, until I felt more confident.
Oh, dear, I sound like such a tentative creature. I guess I am that, after all– except for the once, when I eloped with Tommy. Now that time, I didn’t stop to study and observe. I threw myself right into that situation! And I guess I’ve never regretted it, not even when he died and left me alone.
Maybe it’s time again for me to stop studying and just jump in?
EXERCISE #2: Openness
- How open are you to new ideas and information?
- you change your mind frequently, based on what people have told you?
- Are you a traditionalist, deciding on the basis of “what’s always been”?
- If someone is arguing with you, are you more likely to change your mind or dig in your heels?
- What if the arguer is right?
EXERCISE #3: Observation
When you walk into a party, what do you notice first?
- The mood?
- The people?
- The decorating?
- The things needing to be fixed?
- The background music?
- The food on the buffet table?
- Whether you fit in?
EXERCISE #4: Dominant Sense
Is one sense more highly developed than another?
- Do you tend to take in the world primarily through vision? “I’ll believe that when I see it!” Or are you more audial?
- Do you determine if a person is lying by the tone of voice? Do you love to talk on the phone?
- Don’t forget the sixth sense– intuition.
(This aspect can give you all sorts of plot leads– a visual person might need to learn that appearances can be deceiving; an audial person might learn about a murder because she’s been eavesdropping. Remember also that an artist’s narration of a scene will use very different terms than a musician’s will.)
EXERCISE #5: Relationship to Problems
- Do you usually notice problems around you?
- What is your response? Do you write an angry letter to the editor? shrug and move on? analyze what’s wrong and how to fix it? take it as evidence that the world is falling apart? What about problems within yourself?
EXAMPLE: I have to notice problems around me. That’s sort of my role in the Pierce household. I’m, well, chaperone/household supervisor/hostess for my uncle. (I’m chaperone for my young cousin, I mean, not my uncle!)
Uncle expects me to keep things running smoothly, so I have to anticipate problems and fix them before he notices. I’ve done a good job so far, and he promises if I just get through The Month of the Prussian Visitors, he’ll give me the cottage in Folkestone. I must confess, I’m weary of it all. I feel I must be always on alert, especially where my cousin is concerned. She is rebellious, and doesn’t appreciate my chaperonage.
Sometimes I would just like to quit– but then I think of my little rose cottage, with the garden where my son can play, and I go back to problem-solving.
EXERCISE #6: Optimist or Pessimist?
- Would you say you were an optimist or a pessimist? Would your friends agree?
- How would you react if your life suddenly took a turn for the worse? Are you prepared for that?
- Do you notice when your life is going well? Does that make you happy?
EXERCISE #7: Memories or Hopes?
- Are you more interested in the past or the future, or do you live in the now?
- Are you one to keep holiday traditions?
- Do you reminisce about days gone by?
- Are you sentimental about objects, like your mother’s handmirror or your first baseball glove?
- How hard would it be to move from your present home?
- How long would you keep in touch with your friends back in the old town?
- How long would it take you to make new friends?
EXERCISE #8: Trust
- How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? with this person? First impressions? Intuition?
- Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
EXERCISE #9: Speech Tics
- Are you a deliberate, careful speaker, or do you talk without thinking first?
- Do you like to verbally analyze situations, or do you keep your assessment to yourself until you reach a conclusion?
- Do you use slang, or do you use diction your English teacher would approve?
- Do you consider yourself fairly eloquent?
- How do you get across your meaning when you have to explain something difficult to someone else?
NOW read over what you just wrote, and list 5-10 “hallmarks” of your character’s POV, such as “visual… problem-solver… pessimist… dark view of humanity… expects the worst… looks for trouble… wary and curious… always “on the lookout”… oddly sentimental about some things… speaks slowly and distinctly, as if talking to children.”
EXAMPLE: “Rebecca is thoughtful, with a wry sense of humor. She’s a little weary and impatient, however, and that shows in her voice. She isn’t the most organized speaker– she will start one thought and another will interrupt. But she’s obviously educated, though an informal speaker. She has more self-awareness than most young ladies of her class. I sense she’s keeping some secrets. She seems to feel that she must be… careful, somehow.”
Rebecca’s hallmarks are:
- impatient/ digressive
- intelligent but informal
- cautious about how she presents herself
What do you do with your “findings” about this character?
See how the first-person has produced a character voice.
You’re probably going to be using third-person in the book, but sometimes writing a passage or scene in first-person provides a great deal of energy and sometimes revelations you wouldn’t get if you weren’t channeling the character. Consider keeping something of the style of the character’s narration when you do “deep-third-person”. And of course you can use the hallmarks of this voice in dialogue.
Look for what they reveal and what they conceal.
One might reveal that she’s worried about getting fired, but conceal why, maybe making light of it– “Oh, the boss is always so picky about some things.” Or “It really wasn’t mom’s fault. Really. It was all my fault.”
Remember the rule:
WHAT YOU CONCEAL IS WHAT YOU REVEAL.
That is, anything this character feels like she needs to conceal…? Probably really important! And notice HOW she conceals it.
- Does she make light of it?
- Does she lie?
- Does she ignore it?
- Does she wish it away?
- Does she get belligerent and “none of your beeswax?”
- Don’t say, “Well, if she’s concealing it, how do I know?”
You can’t conceal without notice. That is, the very act of concealment should SHOW. The reader should be able to sense that this is a sensitive topic, or that the character isn’t telling the whole truth, or that she’s making light of something important.
How do you show this? Well, think of how you or your friends or your kids do it. Think of how when your kid or your friend is trying to hide something, you can tell. What do they do? Shifting eyes? A broken-off sentence. “It really wasn’t mom’s faul– I mean, it was really my fault.”
Me, I always change the subject.
Boss: “Now that deadline coming up– I’m hoping you can get the book in before I leave for that cruise to Alaska.”
Me: “Oh, speaking of Alaska–”
Boss: “But we were speaking of your deadline and whether you’d make it.”
Me: “I am so fascinated by icebergs, aren’t you?”
(I’m really bad at concealing. :)
Identify the dominant sense.
See if you can discern their perceptual mode-- what sense predominates, whether they're more an observer or a participant, whether they're hands-on or more book-oriented. (I write software documentation on the side, see. And there are those users who just plunge in and try to figure the software out-- actually, that's me :)-- and the ones who read the manual before they even slide the program CD into the PC. Which would be your character?)
- Does he trust what he sees, or is he a skeptic?
- Does she approach the world with caution or with recklessness?
- Does he play the music in his car really loud, or does he need quiet as he drives so he can think his thoughts?
- How experienced is he in this situation? For example, a poor uneducated cowboy is not going to be able to identify the carpet in the lady’s parlor as an Aubusson. He’s going to be a lot more worried about tracking mud in on his boots.
Anyway, look over your character’s responses and think about how you can apply that to the narration of a scene.
If you’re in this character’s viewpoint…
- What is he going to -see- first when he enters a new setting?
- What is his mood going to be?
- Is he going to notice the people passing by, or is he going to be focused on what his companion is saying, or is he going to be lost in his own thoughts?
- When he gets mad or worried or upset or happy, how is he going to show that?
- What secret is he keeping in this scene, or what agenda does he have, and how will he mentally characterize that.
For example: John’s POV
All John had to do was break into the vault, locate the right safe-deposit box– too bad he didn’t have a clue about the number– jimmy the lock, steal the diamonds, and dig a short tunnel to the sewer pipe. Piece of cake.
She slid her hand down into her jacket pocket, closing her fingers around the cold piece of metal. John would never know what hit him.
Alicia Rasley is a writing teacher and a RITA-award winning author.