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Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Narrator's Voice Is Your Voice

Image: Crystal Queen by Selenada

A book can contain a lot of characters, all very different and with different voices. Yet they are all written by the same person - and the writer has a voice too. How does that writer stop all their characters sounding the same?

I'm a bit surprised. When I think of all the characters in all my stories, I can't think of any two that sound like each other even though I created them all. But then the "me" is up for debate; I've suspected for some time now that I have borderline personality disorder, in which case perhaps a character will be written by whichever "me" is present. Still, it's odd. I don't think I have more than 15 egos, but I must have almost fifty heroines (and heros).

My focus lately was making sure my protagonist has a distinctive voice. Because she drives the story, readers have to least empathise with her, even if getting them to like her is a feat. So, how does one create a distinctive voice?

Image Credit: I have no idea but I think I found it on facebook.

1. HUMOUR IS THE WAY (99.9% of the time, and I have no idea what the last point-one percent is.)

If a protagonist (and narrator, in first-person narration stories) is funny, I'm sold. This was how I got so hooked on Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series. I found Moon Over Soho so heart-achingly hilarious that I bought it straight away, and River Of London too.

The type of humour a character uses will also shape their voice. For example in my novel, Karalan's humour is deadpan and sometimes sarcastic which goes hand in hand with her slightly aggressive tone; whereas Rogs' humour (you'll hear more about HIM later) is very, um, 'bawdy' and often inappropriate XD which I think matches his direct and straightforward way of speaking.

Image: Google

2. Need. A. Point. Of. REFERENCE.

If I was writing about a ten year old boy, I would have to try and get out of my twenty-one year old girl's mind and inside the head of a ten-year old. I could do that by reading books for that age group, or talking to a cousin/nephew/brother of a friend. I could also just make it up and hope nobody finds out, buuuuut eeerrrr probablynotagoodidea.

It really helps to draw from inspiration like someone you hear on the bus/train or a movie character (I personally never use friends or family). Everyone has a way of talking that is unique to them, and highlighting a character's quirks makes them stand out. I find that dynamic personalities, the ones that are slightly more exaggerated, make a bigger impact on me; like Suze from Meg Cabot's The Mediator series, or Rose from Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.

It's also better when that character's personality is fully realised first. For example, what they do for a living, what their hobbies are, the sort of things they like, what they believe in, what music they listen to, and so on. Once I know that, it's much easier to figure out what sort of voice they'll have. Defiant? Sardonic? Chirpy? (I heart chirpy.)

Image: Bridging The Seas With A Boat by Rob Gonsalves

3. Illusion

But ultimately, it's a magic act. Like you're hiding behind the pages of the book, acting out thirty different characters at once and making the reader believe that it's the characters' voices, not yours.

There's this one exercise I came across when I was at school. If the dialogue in your book had no indicators (eg. Karalan said or Jory said), would the reader be able to tell which lines belong to the protagonist?

I don't actually like this exercise because I think it's really hard >.< but on the other hand, I can't deny that it's really helped me make careful choices about the way Karalan speaks. For example, I had to ask myself - does she speak in short or long sentences? Does she use slang (colloquial language) or formal language (even archaic)? Does she swear, or exaggerate? Does she use religious exclamations like 'Oh my God'? Does she say 'please' and 'thank you', and how easy is it for her to say 'sorry'?

Making these choices really helped to refine who she is. Also when we "meet" a character in a book, it's not like meeting someone in real life where you might notice how they look and act first. In books, a lot of first impressions come from what a character says.

Another article you might find useful is To Boldly Write in the Voice of a Child by Claire King.

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How do you make you main character's voice stand out? Do you have any (probably better) tips for creating a strong main character?

Ashana Lian .


  1. I agree that point of references are so important for getting inside the head of your character and thus, writing a realistic character. That's why I think keeping a journal is so great. When I'm an adult, I can look back on my old journals and remember what it was like to be a young child or a teen, and I can use that to write more realistic characters. Using a point of reference is also really helpful to me when I'm writing historical fiction. Reading primary sources helps me get inside the head of a character that lived a really long time ago. This was such a great post, and one that I know I'll refer back to. Good job!

    1. OH MY CATS. THAT IS A GREAT IDEA!! I totally forgot I wrote journals until you mentioned it this very moment. I put them away a while back because they were so embarrassing to read e_e Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes I forget how I used to think about things so looking back on a journal is a great idea. Sadly I only write one now to monitor my depression, unless blogging counts.

      Usually my characters jump out at me and start jabbering away, but I know they must have come from some sort of reference - something I read, or heard, or saw. Other characters, I need to be more specific.

      I'm glad this article was useful to you, thank you for commenting and for your excellent suggestion.

  2. Brilliant post. I always wonder how authors do it. And I also despair when I read a book where every character does sound the same! I'm the same as you, humour wins me over every time! Like I read This Shattered World, which is the sequel to These Broken Stars, and felt it lacked the humour that was present in the first book. It kind of ruined my experience a bit, I really missed the humour and hilarious banter between characters.

    1. I know what you mean. That's a shame, I love banters =D Funny books do end up being really memorable, especially if they make me laugh out loud on the bus (like Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch did). Thanks for commenting!


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