Ask the Editor: Voice and character

Welcome to the Ashland Creek Press blog’s Ask the Editor series! Having received quite a few questions about writing, editing, and publishing, we’ve decided to answer a few of them here, for the benefit of all. If you have a question for us, please submit it here — and we’ll post it soon afterward, along with a helpful and insightful answer (we hope!).

Q: How does a writer make the narrator sound like a juvenile without making the writing sound juvenile? — J.G., San Diego

A: Voice is one of the biggest challenges for writers, especially when tackling a voice that’s very different from one’s own. And it’s especially important to make sure the writing itself is separate from the character, i.e., that the character can sound like a child without the writing sounding childish.

First, I suggest getting to know the character well, as sometimes this is the problem. If you’re writing from the POV of a juvenile, for example, make sure you’re seeing the world from this character’s eyes; try living in this character’s head as much as you can while you’re writing, as if you’re an actor playing a role. Our sense of a character’s age comes from the way he/she sees the world: a teenager will look at something very differently from the way a six-year-old would, or a thirty-year-old, or an eighty-year-old — so think about how your character (from the POV of age as well as his/her unique history) sees what happens around him/her, and describe it in detail. Everything that your reader perceives will come through the details.

Second, choose a POV that fits well what you’re trying to get across in the story — i.e., do you want an intimate, first-person POV (think Catcher in the Rye), or a more distant voice (if the kid is much younger, for example, you may find it easier to use third person to get across things that a child may sense but not be able to articulate in his/her own voice)?

Third, think of your audience — it’s often challenging to create a young voice that appeals to adult audiences, and this appeal (or lack thereof) will depend not only on the voice but on the story itself. There are always exceptions, clearly (not only Catcher in the Rye but books such as The Lovely Bones and the entire Harry Potter series). So try taking an objective look at your story; you may find that if your writing doesn’t sound adult, perhaps your story’s audience isn’t meant to be adult. And if it is, we’re back to POV: third person might be best, as you don’t need to limit your vocabulary as much as in the first person voice.

Also, read as much as you can in the POV you’re going for — this will help you get a feel for what works well. As you read, consider the ways in which these writers succeed in making their characters vivid while at the same time giving them authentic voices.

And finally, make use of a writing partner or writing group to help you judge how well you’ve succeeded. Ask, for example, how old your group thinks your character is, and see how this feedback helps you find that perfect pitch.

Happy writing!