Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing

How to Find Your Character’s Voice

The single most important factor in getting readers’ attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. You can think of voice as your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable. So if narrative voice is so important, how can you create one?

Voice is much debated—and much misunderstood. Too often, our definitions of it end up being nebulous and air-fairy. When it comes to the author’s voice, this is more or less true. The style we develop over the years is something that’s not necessarily conscious to any great degree. The narrative voice that’s unique to each book, however, is something else again. What I’m talking about isn’t so much finding your voice as an author (although that will come as a result). It’s about finding your characters’ voices.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

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We can perfectly understand characters in our heads and in our outlines, but when we actually start putting them onto the page, their personalities—and thus their voices—can prove elusive. Not only is this frustrating in its own right, it can complicate the decision of which POV is best for the story.

So how do you figure it out? Experience is the best teacher. And the only way to gain experience is to experiment. Before you even start that first draft, just rip off a bunch of practice scenes.

Play around with all your possible POV characters.

Write them happy, write them sad.

Write them in first person, write them in third.

Write a throwaway scene in which you don’t have to worry about plot or pacing or any of that, and just dig down under the surface of these characters until—bammo!—you find the unique sound that brings them to life on the page.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you struggle to find unique voices for each of your characters? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I don’t know that I’ve ever struggled to find a character’s voice, or maybe I have and didn’t know that was the problem. LOL

    But I DO recognize it when it’s inconsistent in other people’s writing.

    I like the idea of a throwaway scene. Great tip.

  2. Can you also give advice on how to turn OFF a character’s voice? 😉 I had a very minor character (as in appeared in only the 1st 5 pages) that kept trying to take over the book. Maybe she was crying out for her own book, but if she got more than a few lines she ran away with the chapter.

  3. My problem is that I have too many voices that want my attention, so it’s kind of tough to narrow it down or to even shut some out – which makes me struggle a lot with my stories.

  4. For YEARS I struggled with this, with one interesting note: as the years went by, I noticed that if I wrote a tag like: ‘”Blah blah blah,” said Harry…’ I would continue writing in a very Victorian-esque style — but if I wrote instead: ‘”Blah blah blah,” Harry said…” I would write in a more modern style. Freaked me out, and I couldn’t seem to help it.

    Turned out, after I stopped trying to write full-length stories and wrote a slew of short stories, I found my voice between the two. And now I have fun ^_^

  5. @April: Authors who have a strong sense of character voice are way ahead of the pack. If that’s you, then you go!

    @Angelica: I’ve had a few minor characters like that myself. Often, because minors have more room to be quirky, they seem to have inherently stronger (or, at least, quirkier) voices than the MCs. Sometimes, they *do* deserve to take over the story. I wrote one story that had what I thought was a minor antagonist turn out to be the heroine. But, usually, we just have to be disciplined and shove them back where they belong.

  6. @andrealism: I’ve always written stories with multiple characters. Then, a few months ago, thanks to an FB #WQOTD discussion, I realized almost all of my favorite books are single-narrator stories. My challenge with my latest WIP is to tell it all from one POV. It’s a tempting restriction to break, but the story will be stronger for it.

    @Daniel: That raises a good point. Another good point, as made by sci-fi writer Johne Cook, is that the speaker attributions are almost always better after the dialogue, rather than in front of it.

  7. Kim, here are two more efficient ways (at least sometimes) to find your characters’ voices: (1) interview them; (2) have them write something autobiographical. These closely-related techniques both REQUIRE the author to get out of the way and let the character speak. That’s not always easy to do but when it works, it really works.

  8. I’m a big proponent of character interviews (you can find a list of interview questions I’ve compiled over the years in my book Outlining Your Novel). Nothing beats it for getting into a character’s head.

  9. For my protagonist, voice is always easy. At worst, I write a scene or two and realize the current voice isn’t working, redo it, and there it is. But secondary characters can be harder. I’m in my protagonist’s head so much that it can be difficult to step out and write a voice that’s distinctive. The feedback I get doesn’t suggest any problems in this area, but it’s an anxiety of mine.

  10. The very fact that you’re hyper-aware of it is a good sign. It’s when we’re blithely tripping along, oblivious to the fact that all our characters sound the same (or, beyond that, the fact that they’re *supposed* to sound different), that we’re in trouble.

  11. Anything you can do to give your character life outside your manuscript will help provide a strong voice. Here’s an idea: set up twitter accounts for each of your characters and tweet “in character”. You might even have some characters reply and engage in dialogue with the others. Before long, they’ll each take on distinct personalities, and develop unique speech patterns.

    Plus, it’s kinda fun. 🙂

  12. Some authors even go so far as to set up blogs for their characters. Nothing like a little day to day life from the character you’ll be spending time with for the next year or so.

  13. I struggle with some, and have no problem with others. I have a character who’s a lizard-like person (I write fantasy) who, it seems like, it should be hard to write for, but she’s a breeze. Then I have a regular man with anger management problems and I, the most passive person I’ve ever met, flounder when trying to find the right words to use.

    • I have that problem too. Here’s what I found helped me with that.
      Notice what it feels like to be angry. Then describe it in as many words as possible.
      Another way I like using is use a good third person narative and make him hit things, without discribing thoughts or feelings. Only use sounds, movements and colors to make the scene. Nothing else. Then later add emotion-filled thoughts in between actions.
      Just some tips! I hope they help you!

  14. I’ll have to try these exercises!! I do struggle at times to find the voice. Especially with young children in my stories and being a ya author, that’s deadly. They don’t want to “sound” their age. Other times, they come off to bratty and whine too much. By the time revisions come, I usually have them set but it takes a lot of hit-and-miss for that to happen. If I try the throwaway scenes, it could help loads. Thanks!!

  15. Wow, thank you. This was incredibly helpful. It can become difficult to find the character’s voice. It’s true that the only way is to experiment. Cool stuff, thanks for sharing.

  16. @Laura: That’s just how it goes sometimes. Some characters pop off the page with seemingly little help from us, and others we just have to dig and dig and dig to find their voices. The former are often more fun, but the latter are often more rewarding.

    @Traci: As a matter of fact, someone asked me just yesterday about the challenges of writing child characters. I agree wholeheartedly that they’re tough. It’s so easy to make them sound either too simplistic or too cutesy. One thing I’ve found helpful is to go back and watch home videos of when I was a kid – or go through photo albums. It’s very helpful for reinvigorating the childhood mindset.

    @Marla: Glad you found it useful!

  17. The first book I wrote has received many partial and full requests but keep getting rej with statements such as I am not connecting with the characters in a way I hoped I would. After writing my second book, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t bring my characters in my first book alive enough. Eventually, I will go back and see how I can bring their voices out more because I know the plot is what is grabbing the agents attention. I had to step away and write something else to understand.

  18. Voice certainly isn’t the be all and end all of a successful story, but it’s the first base for grabbing an agent’s (or a reader’s) attention. If you can nail that, you’re already way ahead of the ballgame.

  19. I agree on most of the points that you’ve highlighted here Alicia, though I believe that there’s no shortcut to become a prolific writer and that it can be achieved only through putting your writing skills to good use and actually write a lot of content. Over time, perfection can be achieved.

  20. Absolutely. Writing is a journey. None of us will ever reach perfection. We can only try to get a little closer with every book we write.

  21. Tristan P. says

    I always think I don’t have trouble finding my characters’ voices. Then I reread it sometime later and realize they all end up sounding like me, and I have to rewrite it all. 😆


  1. […] Finding Your Characters Voice – and  Weak Character Voice – both by K. M. Weiland via Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

  2. […] Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. Think of voice as kind of like your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable. —K.M. Weiland “How to Find Your Character’s Voice” […]

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