Friday, September 4, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 1) by Katie Van Ark

My first time at critique group, I soaked up my fellow writers' compliments on my “voice” in my figure skating romance. Though I was new to writing, I'd already heard the art-versus-science debates over this elusive aspect of craft. Well, I thought, I didn't need to worry about if voice could be taught or if it required natural talent. I already had it. Then came novel number two, and my critique partners said: “These characters sound... just like your first characters.”

As I looked back over my draft, I had to agree they were right. I didn't have voice. I'd only given my voice to that first set of characters. Unable to skate competitively myself while pregnant with my first daughter, I'd followed the old advice to “write what you know” and poured out my longing for the ice into The Boy Next Door. Expressions like “see you later, figure skater” and “smooth as ice, that move” had glided onto the page. Now they were back to haunt me like instant replays of a bad fall.

As a reader, I've always been drawn to stories with strong voice and the realization that maybe I didn't have voice after all hit hard. But as a skater, I was used to getting back up. I brushed myself off, deciding that if I didn't have voice, then I was going to learn it. However, I seemed stuck in an ice rut. My MFA program advisor was telling me my newest hero's voice sounded like a girl and the voice muse was ditching practice. (Case in point in these last two sentences, right?)

Then an illustrator friend and fellow SCBWI member, Kathryn Dilley, surprised me at dinner one night with a confession. As a child, she had never thought she could draw until a classmate explained that the skill was all about looking at the world a different way. Kathryn went on, trying to explain how artists see negative space, but her words had sidetracked me: looking at the world a different way. Developing voice was about seeing the world my character's way. My skating lens had given my first characters their voices. Could different lenses help me develop different voices?

Think about meeting people at a party, the way they come to life when you bring up one of their favorite subjects. Miranda Kenneally scored a touchdown using her heroine's passion for football to develop her voice in her young adult romance, CATCHING JORDAN. Jordan confesses her feelings for football in the very first paragraph: “I once read that football was invented so people wouldn't notice summer ending. But I couldn't wait for summer to end. I couldn't wait for football. Football, dominator of fall – football, love of my life.” However, Kenneally also weaves football completely into Jordan's words. How would someone who loves football think about time? Not as after dinner but as “before Monday night football.” Jordan's grass isn't green, it's like “lying on Astroturf, only without the rug burns” and her feeling of emptiness is “a playbook without plays.”

In I'LL MEET YOU THERE, Heather Demetrios used Josh's military experience as a lens for the brief sections told through his perspective while flavoring Skylar's world with her passion for art and specifically collage. And of course passions aren't limited to sports or other hobbies. People are often passionate about their families and cultural backgrounds, and both of these can influence their word choices and tone as well.

In the next part of this series, I'll give you an example of how I applied a new lens to improve the voice in my own work in progress, but in the meantime I'd love to hear about some of the books that have voices you love. Please share!

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Thank you, Katie! This article was first published in the Romance Writers Report (RWR) by Romance Writers of America (RWA), and Katie revised it for this blog series.

Wishing everyone a fun holiday weekend and a smooth start to school. We'll see you back here next Friday for Part 2 of Katie's series on developing voice. 

Another round of Hugs and Hurrahs are right around the corner. Remember to send your good news to Patti Richards at

Kristin Lenz


  1. Love this: "Developing voice was about seeing the world my character's way." Am putting it to practice right now, thank you very much, Katie!

  2. Love this article. Thanks for the insight.

  3. This is something I really struggle with but the idea of a character lens is a great help. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.