Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 2) by Katie Van Ark

In the first part of this series, I wrote about my own struggles trying to develop unique voices for characters in first person POV novels and how a friend's comment about how artists see the world a different way made me think about if I could use my character's passions as lenses to help bring out their voices. When I began writing this article, I found an old YA novel I'd started and set aside during my period of writing “laryngitis.” It began like this:

Jonah’s eyes scanned the room for any and all possible exits. How was he going to get out of here? Running away might make him look like an idiot, but maybe that’s what he was. Skip the maybe part.  He was so stupid for letting people set him up on dates. After this many disasters, he should have learned his lesson.

There may be nothing horribly wrong here at first glance, but there isn't anything great either. Jonah could be anybody; all we know about him at this point is that he's having a bad date.

In a later version, I'd tried to find voice by switching to first person and immersing myself in the action:

So school will be no problem, with the uniforms, but outside? I have a lot of blue in my wardrobe, how about you?” Kimmi's voice squeals like markers on a white board. She can't be Kim or Kimmy, either, those names aren't original enough. Go figure that someone obsessed with being different would want us to wear matching outfits all the time so everyone will know we're a couple.
“Excuse me, I'll be right back.” I stand so quickly I almost trip myself on the legs of the restaurant table.

I now had less internal thought and more dialogue and action, but I still lacked a fully developed character. Even in first person, I was still using my “authorial” voice. Frustrated, I'd put the work aside.

Now I wondered: would considering Jonah's passions help me find his voice? Jonah had appeared in my first novel, The Boy Next Door, as a bit part so I knew his family was French and he was in the running for valedictorian. I added French phrases and upped his vocabulary choices. But what else was there to this character? Working through my overall story arc, I realized that a mutual enthusiasm for film would bring Jonah and his love interest closer and also let me use a tendency to think through his life scenes as film scenes to help with his voice. The result:

"Esp├Ęce de merde. Species of shit. All species of shit. I examine the bathroom window. My six foot frame means I could reach it but it also means that I'll fit through it the day that chickens grow teeth. I slump back against the cool tile of the men's room wall. At least it's quiet in here. The urinals reek of piss but stink way less than what I've just escaped on the other side of that six-paneled door. I pull out my phone and start dictating my latest first date fiasco:


Upbeat music, tables of couples and groups laughing and chatting. Jonah and Kimmi sit at a table in the center.

So we should like totally wear matching outfits so everyone knows we're a couple?


With the uniforms at school that'll be, like, way easy? But after? Do you like blue?


Of course, other aspects of this scene have been altered as well. I'm now starting the scene in the bathroom (where Jonah eventually fled in the previous drafts) and this may not be the final draft, either, but as far as voice goes? That's a wrap.

Check back for some practical tips and exercises in Part 3!

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.


  1. What a helpful post. Thanks, Katie. Showing your process is an eye opener, something I can emmulate. The "seeing as scenes" is an awesome device!

  2. Thank you for all the tips! I look forward to reading part 3!