Let’s say you’re writing a book with multiple points of view—or you want to write one. A major challenge you’re facing or going to face is how to make each character sound distinct from the others. How do you make characters sound unique when they’re all written by you? You are not alone in this problem, young writer. Keep reading for advice to smoothly transition between characters and distinguish their voices.
The first thing to know about multi POV is that you should divide character perspectives at the chapter mark. This is the conventional way to divide multi POV, so you’re probably already doing this. Once you’ve started with one perspective, character voices should be added slowly so the reader doesn’t get confused. In an old project of mine, I tried rotating between a cast of seven characters right from the beginning and it was difficult to read this way.
Something I also want to say is that I find it jarring when an author switches character voices too quickly in the beginning of a book. Is that just me? It’s weird to go from reading one character I barely know anything about to another character a few pages later. It’s this adjustment period that can turn me away from a book. In my own writing I fix this by writing a slightly longer first chapter with the first main character, but it's entirely possible that I’m solving a problem that doesn't exist.
I used to be married to the idea that dual-perspective writing had to alternate between the two characters voices, but this led to problems with trying to force the plot through the wrong character’s perspective. Once I broke this pattern, I could breathe better. I realized that chapters should serve the plot, not limit the way the story is told. At one point I have two chapters written with one character, then three with the other. If you’re writing something with only two character voices, don’t be afraid of breaking the alternating pattern.
Creating unique (and consistent!) character voices can be the most difficult and important thing you do for your story. A character’s voice includes many things, like the way they talk, think, form opinions, their values and their beliefs about the world. You can show these things through content(the words you write), and form(the way you write it).
A character’s voice should be in the way you write them, whether you write in first, third, or second person. A common writing exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction asks the writer to describe a barn, and I’ve adapted it here. Pay attention to how Character A and B describe a barn differently.
Character A: The faded barn leans to the left like it’s been here for 50 years, waiting for me to find it. I step inside into a pool of sunlight. A hole in the roof lets the room breathe.
Character B: The old barn looks like a stiff kick would knock it over. And I have half a mind to, but my other half beckons me inside. There’s a hole in the roof, probably letting in all sorts of nasty creatures.
Each character has an opinion about this barn without telling you directly what it is. Character A is more optimistic, and Character B isn’t. Play around with how characters view their environments, themselves, and other characters, because internal monologues should sound different. The only way you can know how to do this is by knowing your characters deeply. Is your character optimistic? Do they doubt themselves and think in questions? Do they think with certain phrases like “well,”, “maybe I should,”, or “,right?”? What things from their background influence how they act, speak, and think now? If you need to, make a cheat sheet with which words each character uses. This is something I wish I had done while I was writing the first draft.
Finally, you can separate character voices through stylistic choices. For example, you can use character names instead of chapter titles or begin each chapter with their name. However you do it, unique character voices are the best way to let the reader know who they’re reading.
Although it is hard, maintaining a character voice will bond readers to your characters and increase their trust in you, the author! I’m about to start a third draft and still need to differentiate my two characters from each other. Maybe character voice is something I will always have to work on, making it a little better each time.
I will leave you with books that separate characters well, try If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I wish you the best of luck balancing and crafting multiple perspectives, and happy writing.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.
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