Give your character a distinctive voice

In school, we’re often taught to write with a very academic-oriented voice, one that is grammatically correct, structurally logical, and in a tone that is easy to follow but not overly conversational. While that’s perfect for writing term papers, when this translates to our fiction, it can be anathema. What typically happens is that the protagonist’s voice sounds bland, as if he’s, well, reciting a nicely-written term paper…

Especially if the protagonist is narrating the story, his voice must stand out. It must be distinct and intriguing. The reader should want to follow that character not just to see how he solves the story’s problem but because the character, through his voice, is interesting.

Consider a couple of the most famous, distinctive voices in literature:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” – Huckleberry Finn (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain)

“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.” – Alex (“A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess)

Giving your character a distinctive voice involves weaving together a number of elements.

The character should select words and use them in a cadence that is different from other characters. Huckleberry Finn uses words like “but that ain’t no matter” while Alex strings his made-up words together into an almost epic feel.
This word selection and cadence should match the tone of the character’s core personality. Huckleberry Finn, for example, is matter-of-fact in a boyish way while Alex sounds like he’s high or strung out.

Of course, the character’s emotional state may change throughout the book, but it always should be done from a certain reference point, namely the character’s core personality. Huckleberry Finn can show delight and despair, but he does so in a matter-of-fact way; Alex can show anger and boredom, but he always will sound strung out when expressing those feelings.

Lastly, remember to make the character’s voice plausible. A reader easily can imagine a boy like Huck Finn. And while Alex’s voice might initially surprise the reader, it’s believable.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.