Pub Rants

Don’t Mistake Voice For Character Development

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STATUS: It was a nice quiet day. Only something like 25 emails versus my usual 60 to 80 on any given work day. Gosh I love half-day Fridays in publishing!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COME MONDAY by Jimmy Buffett

I’ve been reading sample pages again this week (a desperate bid to catch up before I go out of town all next week for RWA in San Fran).

And here’s another “problem” that has me thinking this week. I see a lot of young adult sample pages and one thing I’d like to highlight is that writers should not mistake voice for character development in their manuscripts.

In other words, I’m seeing a lot of sample pages with fun, light (dare I say—chick litty) kinds of voices where the main characters will use a lot of OMG or “hello? How could they not know” type of phrases as a way capturing girl teen speak.

Now I understand why writers are using this. It’s a fun, more light tone to convey the lighter nature of the novel but that alone does not define your main protagonist. In other words, that’s only ONE facet of character development. That alone will not be enough and that’s why I’m passing on a lot of sample pages as of late—pages with good concepts but an over-reliance on this voice technique and almost no other character development outside of the voice.

I need to see more original character development so the young teen protagonist strikes me as a unique individual (worthy of a story) and not a conglomeration of how teen girls talk.

It’s Friday and I’ll just throw it out there. Let me know if it makes sense. Have a good weekend.

21 Responses

  1. Maggie Stiefvater said:

    I have to confess I’m not a big fan of overly teen voice period in YA fiction. As a teen, I never spoke like a teen and my friends didn’t either — and I couldn’t stand to read really slang-y sounding protagonists either.

    In fact, today I just put down a YA novel that was very teen sounding in favor of THE LUXE, which is more subtle so far — and more relaxing to my ear.

  2. suelder said:

    I’m developing a checklist, based on workshops and how I write.

    I tend to write dialogue first, then, as I edit/revise/review, whatever, I add in description, action, body language, facial expressions, depending on what works best for that part of the scene.

    What they do and how they do it can often define a character better than their voice. Of course, I’m also working on character and authorial voice. 😉

  3. Julie Weathers said:


    We were having a discussion kind of like this in a workshop I’m taking. Perhaps I’m wrong but I look at the character’s voice almost like a physical description. The danger with it is using it so much it becomes an irritant.

    Let’s take my Cajun cowboys. I picked out certain words they use to give the flavor. Too much and people are trying to decipher what they are saying. Give the reader no reason to come out of the story. Too little and it doesn’t define them. When they get mad at each other they just go straight to Cajun. It’s a personality quirk.

    It doesn’t get them from point a to point b, though. No more than thick, black hair does. The character’s voice is just a description of your character not growth or plot.

    I think.

    I might be confused.

    Don’t listen to me.

    I can’t even figure out a title for my book, manuscript, wip, this thing I’m writing.

  4. Chris Bates said:

    I used to bury myself in screenwriting crap years ago and a trait I brought over to fiction is testing to see if my characters can be defined without dialogue or narrative voice, ie using action alone.

    If I can’t see a character come to life by their actions … I know I don’t have a fully-realised character.

    In my opinion, it’s a sign of lazy story development… and I should know, when it comes to writing I’m the laziness bastard I know!

  5. Anil P said:

    I quite agree. This reminds me of Bollywood movies exploring the local lingo for use in scripts, so much so that characters are thinly developed.

  6. Kathleen said:

    Makes perfect sense!

    You know… I’m honestly not sure about the whole character development thing. Well, not so much the development itself, but the portrayal of it.

    My characters are (I think) very well developed. I’ve written (and deleted) dozens of pages of scenes and backstory that I wrote as I was discovering who my characters were, what they’ve been through in their past, why they are the way they are, how they think about things, and so forth. Then there’s even more that only happened in my head, but I had to work out because the critical reader in me knew some other reader out there might wonder, and I had to have a realistic answer or my character would be written off.

    But I honestly don’t know if I’ve done well in portraying that individuality. They’ve got unique skills which obviously come across… but a character is more than their skills. And of course, no one wants to know all of the backstory and details that really don’t have anything to do with the story.

    So where is the line? How do you know if you’re including enough of those details to make the character unique? How do you know you’re not boring the reader with details they’re not interested in? (I’m not too worried that I’ve done that, anymore. there’s nothing left in the thing except those things that advance the plot or complete a scene that advances the plot. But it’s still a valid question.) It seems there’s a delicate balance, and I don’t know how to make sure I’ve achieved it.

  7. Elizabeth said:

    one of the most difficult parts about writing…understanding your own voice and developing your characters. thanks for the post.

  8. Jana Lubina said:

    I bougt a novel for my 13 year old cousin for Christmas last year where the protagonist and her friends spoke in that type of voice. read it first and then I returned it. Why? I don’t think encouraging kids to speak like idiots is a positive, and I don’t think literature should be reinforcing that as an acceptable thing.

    My teen years are not that far behind me, and I never spoke like that. I tutor teens now ocassionally in English and I shudder at their lack of proper language skills.

  9. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    See, ya should read more books written for boys, the kind I write. They don’t dialogue much but they do carry worms and such in their pants pockets… goes over big when Mom washes clothes!

    Haste yee back 😉

  10. Karen Duvall said:

    This is so refreshing to hear, Kristin. And it doesn’t apply only to YA. I find some adult books that feature a “plucky” heroine who speaks fluent snark and kills anything that moves to be cliche and boring. It’s a copycat tactic that’s used, as you said, to define the character without actually giving the character any defining characteristics to set them apart.

    Voice is so much more than attitude, especially when that attitude has now become a sterotype.

  11. Sherryl said:

    I totally agree, Kristin. It’s also too easy for that voice to slip into either “dumb and fluffy” or whiny, if you rely on it too much.
    There are advantages to first person, but the disadvantages are too much reliance on voice to carry other important stuff like character, setting and action. That’s when I see students slip into telling instead of showing. They rely on the voice to tell the reader everything.
    I have to watch it in my own writing, too! But if you are aware of it, it’s easier to catch.

  12. Celesi said:

    My first readers actually pointed that out to me. My 23 year old protag was acting too young, and I had to go back into the first couple of chapters, and have her watch her tongue around the little ones, and her flights into rage had to have a little more sense behind them.

    Being 21, I didn’t really see much wrong with the character, but I’m a firm believer in never growing up. Thank goodness for first readers!

  13. Alisa said:

    I’ve always been a fan of writing and reading dialogue, and you’re absolutely right that modern YA books have that annoying teenage voices without having decent characters to back them up. I read a book recently where every main character was named Sarah, and while they all had different ‘personality traits’ they all just sounded exactly the same – annoying.

    I never did really notice it until you pointed this out, however, and am now very aware of it.

    Your blog is gold.

  14. RK said:

    I recently read Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely and she manages to get characters across without using annoying “teen-speak”. I think I was able to fall into the story better because of that.

  15. Pam Halter said:

    Some phrases kids use are regional. Some spread out. I find that getting involved with kids really helps me with character development. For example, I’m the music director for our local summer theatre kid’s show. I work with kids ages 8-18. Besides being fun, I get to see all sorts of personalities and how they interact with each other.

    I also teach writing workshops in the public school where my husband teaches. Lots of fodder for characters there, too.

    We have to be careful not to create characters that look like they are someone an adult came up with. Easier said than done. HA!

  16. benwah said:

    Interesting and valid point.

    The voice of an internally-spoken monologue is one thing, but when it comes to dialogue between or among characters the reactions can certainly help define characters. If plucky heronie Sarah is constantly thinking in “OMG!” speak, that’s one thing. If she’s saying “OMG!” to people in real life, their responses may range from “Go back to playing with your My Little Ponies” to “Yeah, OMFG!” Both of which help define Sarah and her conversational partner.

    Then again, I’m a bigger fan of external dialogue than internal voice precisely because other characters can hear and react to it. It’s the reactions which I think help reflect a character.

    Just 2 cents, though.