Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

The Voice of Your Character

Authors tend to be aware that if they’re writing in first person, all thoughts and narrative need to be in the character’s voice—not in the author’s voice. But what about when we’re writing in third person? Third person has various forms, the most prevalent today being “close third.” In this point of view (POV) the reader resides within the character’s head, seeing, feeling, thinking along with the character. The only voice closer in intimacy than close third is first person.

Always WatchingIf you’re writing in close third, I advocate allowing each POV character’s voice to come through over your own author’s voice. If your book has six POV characters, then each of those six will sound different. Each character will describe things differently, perceive differently, based on his or her experiences. But allowing the character’s voice to rise above your own is a challenge. In my writing, the character’s voice becomes more distinct in scene rewriting. My first drafts sound too much like me.

So how to rewrite to allow your character’s voice to shine through?

The best teaching on this issue is by example. Following is a first draft scene from Crimson Eve (third in the Kanner Lake series), told in the POV of Tony, the antagonist. Tony is a hit man, a street-wise guy around forty who works for some powerful people. Although he’s not educated past high school, he’s learned refinement skills enough to pass himself off as a businessman when necessary. He’s also a father and husband who’s dedicated to his family. In this scene, Tony has broken into a home at night to check out a few things about his intended target:

Tony sidled from dark kitchen to living room to hall toward the bedrooms, his heightened senses attentive to his environment. He could tell a lot about a woman from the house she kept. When he’d first slunk through the house—during daylight hours—he picked up a feeling of order, one without rigidity but bordering on coolness. Each room flowed into the other, creating an aura of space in the compact home. Everything seemed in its place, no dishes in the sink, counters free of clutter. A few plants could have warmed up the room considerably. In the living room he saw a light blue sofa and matching chairs grouped around a white-tiled fireplace, three magazines stacked on a glass-topped coffee table. Built-in shelves held knick knacks and books, but few photos. The only pictures on the walls were art prints. Nothing commemorating the life Carla Radling had lived, her hobbies, her travels, her dreams.

Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but something about the place reflected the sass that he’d seen in his target. Maybe it was the brazenness of the scattered bright solid color pillows—scarlet against the blue of the couch, sunny yellow on the chairs. Or the bold fluidity of the house, as if walls were an encumbrance to be avoided. Now passing through a second time, Tony was struck by the difference between this house and the one his wife, Robyn, kept. What a difference a child’s presence made. Their home was warmed by familiar clutter—Timmy’s shoes askew on the kitchen floor, toys on the crushed knap of the carpet before the TV, the smells of cookies and peanut butter and grubby sock . . .

Does this voice sound like that of the man I described above? Would a man like Tony think such words/phrases as creating an aura, askew, encumbrance, warmed by familiar clutter, bold fluidity? Not at all. Those are words in my author’s voice, not Tony’s. Coming from him, they sound stilted. The scene is also weighted with too many words. The rhythm doesn’t fit Tony’s quick, efficient scoping out of the house in the dark. But the wordiness took care of itself when I fixed the voice to sound more like Tony:

Tony moved through the dark kitchen, senses prickling. He could tell things about a person from her house. This one had a feeling of order and coolness. Everything in its place, no clutter. In the living room sat a light blue sofa—in the daylight he’d seen its color. Matching chairs grouped around a white-tiled fireplace, magazines stacked on a glass-topped coffee table. Knick knacks and books on built-in shelves. No photos. Art prints on the walls. Nothing commemorating Carla Radling’s life.

Who was this woman?

His own house was homey. Timmy’s shoes on the kitchen floor, toys in front of the TV. The smell of cookies and peanut butter . . .

Less “refined”? Yes. But more in keeping with the character.

You may find yourself tempted to write using the more skillful phrase, the artful turn of words. But whose voice is that—the character’s or yours? Admittedly, some authors do very well by always writing in their own voices. That voice, then, is what readers hear most in the novel, not the voices of the characters. If you’re used to writing like that, I urge you to try something different. Allow your characters’ voices to take over. You might find your characters becoming more real, more believable than ever before.