Most Common Writing Mistakes: Weak Character Voice

Voice. That tantalizingly nebulous word is flung around so often in writing critiques and agent demands that writers sometimes get to where we almost hate the sound of it. Every author is supposed to cultivate a unique voice. But, even more than that, we’re also supposed to create a unique character voice for every one of our players.

But how do we do that? Well, we start by creating unique character personalities—and, if we’re lucky, character voice will just flow right out of those vibrant personalities. Sounds good, all right. So let’s say you’ve created that super-duper, unique character. He’s a wise-guy kid who’s headed for the European theater in World War II. His voice is thick in your head, and his personality seems to be bubbling right out onto the page.

But beta readers aren’t getting it.

“I don’t hear his voice,” they complain. “He seems like every other character.”

This, of course, makes you want to smack your forehead against the table—or, better yet, their forehead. You have to bite your tongue until it bleeds just to keep from screaming, “Of course he’s unique! Can’t you hear his voice!”

The point, naturally, is that they can’t hear his voice. This problem may go deeper than you even want to think about: maybe that character isn’t so unique and awesome after all. But we’re going to look on the bright side: it could be due to the much simpler problem of too much telling in your narrative.

How to Recognize a Weak Character Voice

Even a strong character may end up with a weak narrative voice if you’re summarizing all his thoughts. For instance:

Eddie crept into the dark barracks. The sentry outside the camp’s gates hadn’t noticed him and his buddy Alec sneaking in after hours. They were supposed to have been back from their two days’ leave five hours ago.

Inside, everybody was snoring. Eddie heaved a sigh of relief and slapped Alec’s shoulder before tumbling into his own bunk.

The situation sounds interesting enough. But we don’t get much sense of Eddie’s thoughts or emotions upon his hasty return to his quarters. Even worse, we get no sense of his personality. In other words, his voice is weak. And boring.

I, as the author of this riveting piece, am totally in sync with what tense and possibly uproarious thoughts are going on in Eddie’s head. But since I’m obviously so intent on hoarding them, I can hardly get upset with you when you tell me Eddie’s just not popping off the page for you.

How to Fix a Weak Character Voice

This is where it gets fun. Once you understand what character voice is and how to strengthen it on the page, it raises the whole art of storytelling—and especially character creation—to a much higher pitch of enjoyment.

To fix poor Eddie’s pitiful voice, all we have to do is start showing his thoughts. In other words, we’re going to dramatize whatever it is that’s going on in his head. We’re going to see if we can show what he’s doing and what’s happening to him through the unique lens of his own perspective.

Technically, in any tight POV (including deep third-person), every word in the narrative is going to be part of your POV character’s thoughts. Take a moment to consider the running monologue that’s going on inside his head. How does he view the world and his experiences in it? If he were telling this story to a friend, instead of just “thinking” it, what words and phrases would he choose to convey his point?

With that in mind, let’s give Eddie another chance to have his say:

Eddie crept into the barracks. The whole place was black as the devil’s laundry room. Not even the lazy blink of a cigarette butt’s glow. Perfect. Pos-o-tively perfect. He looked in Alex’s direction, even though he couldn’t see him, and grinned.

The sentry outside the camp’s gates hadn’t even noticed them sneaking in after hours. How was that for military precision? And these guys were supposed to clamber into Germany and come out with Hitler’s mustache? Right. They couldn’t even figure out two of their own had been stretching their two-day passes for all they were worth.

Inside, everybody was snoring. Or maybe it was just Big Paunchie. Hard to tell, since ol’ Paunchie sounded like a Howitzer all by himself. That was perfect too. Cover noise and everything. Seemed like the whole platoon was on their side. He heaved a sigh of relief and slapped Alec’s shoulder before tumbling into his own bunk.

And, just like that, Eddie is suddenly a character and his narrative suddenly has a . . . voice.

>>Click here to read more posts in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series.

Tell me your opinion: How do you bring your protagonist’s voice to life?

Most Common Writing Mistakes: Weak Character Voice

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. When I’m forming my characters, I keep in mind their backgrounds. My P.I. With a masters in English Lit? He’s going to talk differently–internally and externally–than a crack head looking for his next fix. Keeping this in mind–and picking some favorite words each character likes to use–helps make them unique.

  2. Steve Mathisen says

    Well timed advice, I am trying to deepen my story and adding the sorts detail you suggest . Thanks!!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      This is definitely a great way to deepen both the character and story. Never know where a lively narrative will lead you!

  3. Fantastic post! I think I had somewhat of an “aha” moment there.
    Another trap all too easily walked into is ignoring voice in the first draft and thinking of it as something that can be added later, like a seasoning. After spending hours and days trying to do this in the third draft of my first novel, I realized how integral the voice of a character is to the early stages of a story. Voice can be tweaked, even rewritten, but trying to “add” it is a completely different story.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Great point. Voice is integral to any story. That aside, it’s also *way* easier to write organically than it is to try to jam into a finished draft.

  4. This is a terrific post. I really appreciate the excellent example. I will be posting this link on my blog. Thanks.

  5. You make things so incredibly simple- thank you! I believe as writers, we overthink things so much, we just automatically assume that our readers are in our heads as well. You showed really great examples. Now I want to read the rest of Eddie’s story…

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Writing is only complicated because it has so many working parts. If we can take those parts apart and examine them piece by piece, everything makes much more sense. And, who knows, maybe I’ll write Eddie’s story one of these days!

  6. Great post!

    Thank you!

  7. Awesome! This post was super.

  8. Thanks, Katie, that’s very practical advice. One fundamental observation, which I often overlook: Showing generally requires much more ink than telling!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      ‘Tis truth. Which, of course, is why telling absolutely has its purpose as well. Sometimes we won’t want to spill lots of ink on certain story events.

  9. This is a huge issue for me. As you said at the beginning of the post, I hear the character’s voice but I don’t write it so the reader hears it. I try to fix it during the editing process when I’m fine tuning each character’s part in the scene. I try to put myself in their shoes and ask how would this character feel or react? What would they say or not say?

    It’s a challenge since I don’t do major character development before the story as I find the characters develop better as I’m writing the story (and they change), but it does make finding their voice take a little longer sometimes.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Something that often helps me when I’m stuck is giving a narrating character an actor’s voice. If I can try to hear that person’s voice in my head, the pattern of the words often arranges itself right on the page.

  10. This advice was just in time. I needed a reminder. I’ve been working on my current MS for a while now and went through a stage where I was a little burnt out on it. I got lazy about the voice in my haste to just get the story down. I still love the story and the characters though, and they deserve better treatment. Time to make it up to them! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      All things considered, it’s much easier to get the narrator’s voice mostly right in that first draft (to avoid major rewrites). But sometimes we just have to get the words on paper to begin with, before we can figure the rest of this out.

  11. K.M.–This is another very useful post. Thank you. I have a simple, perhaps simple-minded suggestion to add regarding establishing voice. It has to do with names. I don’t think I’m alone in associating real people’s names with their voices. For me, the same thing holds true for fictional names. If I get a character’s name right enough to be convinced it’s right, I start being better able to hear that character, how he/she differs from others. If this holds true for anyone else, it underscores the importance of taking extra time to get names right.

    • Good point, Barry. Choose appropriate, easily pronounced names and avoid having different characters with similar-sounding names.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Couldn’t agree more – which is why choosing character names is often one my most arduous processes. They have to sound right, and they have to look right on the page.

  12. Thanks. I understand you’d use this for first-person and free indirect narration, but would you still use voice for an omniscient narrator?

    • Omniscient is a different animal. Although the narrator can “see” into various characters’ thoughts, the narration itself doesn’t necessarily reflect the characters’ thought patterns, as we see here in this post. However, the omniscient narrator (whoever he may be) will have his own voice, which may be intimate or distant, depending on the needs of the story and the author’s choice.

  13. This was such a useful post for me as I am working on not making my characters’ voice sound the same. Thanks for your advice.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Giving multiple characters unique voices is a tremendous challenge, primarily because all of those voices have to evolve from just one – ours!

  14. By using “show, don’t tell” rule in a balanced way, I express not only the way they react to a situation but how they portray it. To one character the situation might seem comical or not so serious while to the other it might mean the difference between failing their family or friends. So, in turn their dialogue and mannerism will express each character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly! “Showing” isn’t just about bringing the scene to life; it’s also about bringing the character to life.

  15. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says

    You have a real knack for explaining things clearing. There’s no confusion when reading your blog posts. Can I hug you?

  16. I just found your blog the other day and I ADORE it! I’m currently devouring “Outlining Your Novel” as well as making my way through every post on here. Every tip you shared has been so eye-opening for me! I cannot thank you enough. A million hugs are being sent your way 🙂

    I have a question on character voice written in first person. Obviously the protagonist would have a very defined and clear voice since we live inside his head, but what about the other characters? Is there a way to develop their voices outside of dialogue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad you’re enjoying Outlining Your Novel! Makes my day to hear it’s been useful.

      In answer to your question, ultimately, the answer is no. When in first-person, the only *narrative* voice readers are going to hear is the narrator’s. However, it is still definitely important that the minor characters are distinguished with unique and interesting voices in the dialogue. That will go a long ways toward characterizing them.

  17. Jim Arnold says

    You’ve done it again, Katie. You have raised the bar and taken me deeper into a much-needed story idea. The result of that is now I have to go back and punch up the scenes and personalities in a few chapters. My working project is going to be fantastic. Thank you.

  18. Great advice, thank you so much for writing this. It’s so damn nice to finally have a way to give stronger voice! I struggle with this a lot, so this should make my writing much better. Keep up the writing.

  19. Cathy Smallwood says

    Thank you!!!!
    Now I ‘get it’… I understand why having my main character talk to his dog, and lately, Mirror Man, is bringing him to life for me – and hopefully the reader.
    Excellent example. 🙂

  20. I feel like reading the second example gave me an ephinany. I’ll have to see if it carries over to real life, but it was definitely an eye opener

  21. James+Warren says

    Another home run. Showing is always better. Showing one’s personality is what I am trying to learn to do. The best way I have found to not only give each character a DIFFERENT voice is to to use MBTI personality traits. Once I learn what my character is, I know what he’ll do and why, and whether he is passive or terse or. . .


  1. […] Voice. That tantalizingly nebulous word is flung around so often in writing critiques and agent demands that writers sometimes get to where we almost hate the sound of it. Every author is supposed to cultivate a unique voice. But, even more than that, we’re also supposed to create a unique character voice for every one of our players.  […]

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