Character Voice: How to Actually Listen to Your Protagonist

by Guest Blogger | 23 comments

Today's guest post is by Sarah Bradley. Sarah is a freelance writer, creative writing instructor, and the founder of Pen to Paper Creative Writing Services. You can find her offering instruction for beginning writers on the Pen to Paper blog, posting motivational tips and resources on Facebook, and sharing the inspiration behind her own creative process on Instagram (@pentopaperwriting).

Anyone who has dipped their toes into the world of writing novels knows how crucial character development is to telling strong stories. Plot, setting, and dialogue are necessary building blocks of fiction, but your characters are the foundation that your story is resting on—without dynamic characters, no amount of plot twists, fantastical settings, or authentic dialogue will magically transform into a novel that people want to read.

Character Voice: How to Actually Listen to Your Protagonist

If the success of your novel is in fact riding on the strength of your characters, you need to know who they are, inside and out. More importantly, you need a character with a strong voice, one that can reveal the emotional depths of your story to the reader. That character voice will support your novel—and without it, your story will crumble.

That’s a lot of pressure, for both you and your character. How do you develop a compelling protagonist who can carry your entire story on his or her imaginary back?

The Dizzying World of Character Sketching

When I first started putting my ideas for a novel onto paper, the plot points and setting fell into place somewhat easily. What was more elusive was a sense of familiarity with my protagonist, a young girl who was still grieving a deeply traumatic loss from her childhood. Aside from still being fuzzy on the details of her physical appearance and personality, I felt like I didn’t really know her.

As a creative writing instructor, I knew what my options were. I counsel students all the time on the various writing prompts and exercises that exist to help writers learn more about their characters.

Fill out a character sketch outline! Take your character out to lunch! Put her in an unfamiliar location or time period! Force him to do something normal, like change a tire or go grocery shopping!

The intent behind many of these tactics is meaningful: you can’t really bring a character to life on the page if you have no clear vision of him or her in your head.

But I worried that spending time working out this character’s full rap sheet of qualities wasn’t going to get me any closer to the one thing that was going to help me write this novel: developing her voice.

I was planning on writing a first-person narrative. As a young girl, this character’s perspective on the events of the novel was just as valuable as the events themselves. I didn’t want to assign her a bevy of random character traits. I wanted to hear her.

Let Them Tell You Who They Are

I decided to take a different approach. I tried to imagine myself putting on this character’s persona, the way one might slip into a stranger’s coat or pair of shoes. Then I blocked out all of my preconceived notions about what she looked like, how she behaved, and what she might want.

I forced myself to be quiet and listen to her. Who was she, in her own words? What did she have to say about herself? How did she view the events that had shaped her childhood? Was she funny or serious? Was she self-aware, or innocently naive?

What did she want? Why? How did she plan to get it?

An hour later, I was stunned by what had come out of this simple exercise. This character told me things about herself that I would have never imposed upon her in a traditional character sketching exercise. She was determined. She was strong. But she was also scared, and her fears were constantly threatening to cripple her.

For the first time since the idea for this novel came into existence, I finally knew who this girl really was, because she had told me herself.

Be Quiet and Listen: The Character Monologue Method

Without realizing it, what I had done was write a character monologue. In an effort to simply hear my character speak in her own voice, I had harkened back to the days of Shakespeare and written her a monologue summarizing who she is at the imagined start of my novel.

It was the single best thing I’ve done to kickstart my writing process. Prior to completing the monologue, I was stalling. I had a loose plan for the novel, but where and how did I really get started?

After the monologue, those fears (nearly!) went away. I was reinvigorated—this character was someone I cared deeply about. Her story was worth telling. It was the exact exercise I needed to find my motivation for writing.

Was this a character who could carry my story on her back? Absolutely.

Embrace Your Inner Shakespeare

Maybe you have a story, but no protagonist. Maybe you have a protagonist, but she is as unfamiliar to you as the waitress who served your lunch yesterday. Maybe you think you know who your protagonist is, but you doubt his ability to effectively convey the story you want to tell.

Whatever your scenario is, writing a character monologue could be the answer. It worked well for me as an initiation exercise, but you can create one at any point during your writing process.

Here’s how:

  1. You have to be quiet. This exercise is about giving your character a voice, an opportunity to be heard. Don’t tell him who he is. Let him tell you.
  2. A little bit of play-acting goes a long way. Put yourself in your character’s shoes, but think beyond simply writing in first person. Remember that a monologue is considered dialogue, so this is about more than uncovering your character’s personality. It’s about what she has to say.
  3. Assume that nothing you write will make it into your novel. Just like every other character sketch exercise, this is a chance to write without expectations. Don’t filter or edit or try to write something useful that you can transpose into your novel later. Give your character permission to tell you things he never tells anyone.

When you give your characters the freedom to speak, you might be surprised at what they reveal about themselves. If given the chance, what would your protagonist decide to tell you?

Have you ever written a character monologue? Let us know how you listen to your character's voice in the comments.

PRACTICE

Consider the protagonist of your current work in progress. Spend a few minutes tuning out distractions and setting aside your preconceived ideas about who this character is. Think about where they are at either the start of your novel or the brink of one of your story’s major turning points.

Then spend fifteen minutes adopting this character’s persona in writing. Using a first person point of view, write as if this character’s voice is funneling through you. You’re simply a siphon for his thoughts. Is he happy with where he is? Why or why not? How did he get there? What mistakes has he made, what regrets does he have? What does he wish could be different? What does he plan on doing next?

When you’re finished, post your character’s monologue in the comments section. Don’t forget to engage with a few other writers' monologues as well!

Happy writing!

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

23 Comments

  1. Ailyn Koay

    Christopher House is a detective who is in a bitter divorce, but also at the same time found a new love.
    Monologue:
    It can’t be! Shit, she is… damn it, I thought she was Russian! I can’t believe I fell for a half Chink!

    Reply
    • pentopaperwriting

      Interesting start! Keep going with it, if you can, since this is only one line of inner dialogue. I’d love a monologue that includes the detective’s path to realization (i.e. what he’s thinking just *before* he gets to this point) or the aftermath (i.e. how he feels about this woman now that he knows the truth, or what he plans to do about it). Spend a little more time inside his head, and see if he reveals something to you that you didn’t know about him before.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Sarah

    • Ailyn Koay

      hahaha sorry, it’s 2am and he’s/ I’m pretty zoned out.. pretty sure he’ll come around

    • Paris

      @pentopaperwriting:disqus
      How do I write a Monologue

  2. Emilia Maia

    First of all, I am not a writer but love to write, and I read a lot about writing. So, my apologies for the stupid question. I am not clear about how this exercise works. If I am the one who will “talk” or “write” the character’s thoughts, the thoughts will still be my thoughts. I can imagine having someone else who could potentially be a good proxy for my character and let that person talk. This would seem to make more sense since I could get more of the character’s real experiences and feelings. Maybe I am missing the whole point of the exercise… Thank you for taking time to share, though.

    Reply
    • David M. Dresser Sr.

      You are right in that the thoughts are yours, but with practice (or split mentality) you develop the ability to imagine yourself as the other person. Then place your mind in the state he lives in and write down the thoughts that develop. This is not always easy or desirable. I can do it too easily and have been advised by friends to stay away from squirrels. Good luck with your writing.
      David of Dogpatch

    • pentopaperwriting

      David, thanks for chiming in! I really like this idea of the “split mentality,” where you are writing as yourself, naturally, but also as another person. I think you understood the exercise well in your explanation here to really get inside the character’s mindset and write down their thoughts.

      You’re right: it isn’t always easy! It takes some practice and a certain amount of “letting go.”

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

      Sarah

    • pentopaperwriting

      Hi Emilia,

      Thanks for your question! Of course, anything you write will technically be your thoughts, but traditional character sketch exercises require you to fill in the blanks about your character in a somewhat formulaic way (almost like completing a recipe for a character: what does she look like, what does she want, what are her fears, etc). When writers create new characters, they often assign many of these traits, preferences, desires, and behaviors somewhat arbitrarily, or with too much emphasis on the overall story (i.e. your character’s personality serves to move some important plot point along).

      The monologue exercise, though, allows you to adopt the voice and persona of the character (rather than designing them from a distance). If you can allow yourself to really get inside your character’s head, you will, hopefully, be able to think and talk like them–not as a writer simply trying to imagine what he/she might think, feel, say, or do in a particular situation, but as the actual character. That leads to a more authentic character, and one more deeply rooted in your story.

      I hope that helps to clarify! If not, please feel free to continue asking questions!

      Thanks and good luck,
      Sarah

  3. Alyssa

    I’m not sure how long I actually took to write this, but I have a monologue from my main character at a point in the story very near the crisis. “She tears me to pieces, with her determination. Every time I show up for the day, she drives us all forward. I nearly break and spill it all when she does that, when she encourages us all, picks us up when we’re falling, and never stops moving forward. We’re so close. Closer than I thought was possible. It’s my fault, all my fault, and she couldn’t possibly ever forgive me. I don’t deserve to have her, I don’t deserve to be with her, it’s my fault she and her friends are here. I can’t tell her, but I have to. I can’t live with myself like this, but it’s too late to take everything back. Everyone’s already stuck here, they can’t leave. And it’s my fault. I brought them here, made it impossible, hoping they’d give up. Hoping we could all be happy. But I didn’t expect this agony, the torture of these determined people. They won’t give up, she won’t give up. I know I don’t have long before she realizes no one can get out, or hardly anyone, and then I’ll have to tell her. She’ll hate me, but it’s been so long now and it’s torturing me to keep silent.”

    Reply
    • pentopaperwriting

      Hi Alyssa,

      I think you embraced the exercise really well! I feel like this character is being brutally honest, and revealing things to you that wouldn’t necessarily have a place in your actual story. All those self-critical thoughts and doubts are so telling about this character.

      Hopefully there is a kernel of something in here that you can carry over into your story as you move forward into the crisis point!

      Thanks for sharing,

      Sarah

    • Alyssa

      Some of the raw emotion won’t come through from this character, but these thoughts and doubts are critical to the plot of the story even if they won’t be seen directly by the readers.
      As it happens I’m nowhere near the crisis point, but I know what it is and generally when it occurs in the story, so when I get there I’ll have a great launching point for everything that comes after.

    • pentopaperwriting

      You’re totally right: some of these sentiments won’t be seen directly by the reader, but they are no doubt critical to the overall impression of the story. Good luck with your writing!

      Sarah

    • Alyssa

      Thank you!

  4. Seregìel Silme

    So, that’s a monologue of a character in a very recently started story. For context, a curse has been laid on her family and years later she is forced to face her past she had decided to forget.
    “I can’t believe they want me to do this. I’m not a hero, that’s for sure. Teirist very well knows how emotionally unstable I am, so why would he do this to me? I know I owe him a debt, but that does not mean that I am ready to save an entire village alone. And now I bet he doubts of my capacities to do so. It took me so long just to feel okay, just to smother the torture of guilt upon my mind, and they dare inflict this on me again. After I had persuaded myself it wasn’t entirely my fault. When I think that all of this ridiculous business is for a tiny weeny piece of information. They think I know the secret. Well, I don’t. I don’t because I chose not to-because it killed my soul. Does that mean I’m a fugitive? That people are officially looking for me again? At least this time, I’m on the good side of things. If I consider opposing to world destruction a good thing, that is. I bet none of those stinking princelings would dare to say otherwise. Because it’s honourable to save the world. I think a good cleaning session wouldn’t be such a terrible idea when you see what is happening in the streets. It disgusts me to see how poorly some people live and how miserable people can be. No one ever cares for the ones who need caring, and that’s why it would spare many innocent spirits to get a new start. I am so sick of this world…I don’t think I will be staying long, no matter how things turn out.”

    Reply
    • Pen to Paper Creative Writing

      I love the unfiltered honesty here! This is such a good example of how the character monologue can reveal important details to us, as the writer, that help us understand our own creations. While most of this wouldn’t be appropriate to put directly into your story or novel, I imagine it will be valuable for you as you move through your storytelling, making choices about what your character would or wouldn’t do in certain situations.

      Thank you for sharing!

      Sarah

    • Seregìel Silme

      Well, thank you for your kind words! Thank you for your blog post too!

  5. Azure Darkness Yugi

    I’m going to the villain of my story instead of my protagonist.
    “The dark is both patient and generous. It’s also everywhere. Even in the day. It’s under trees, animals and even you. Just look down an you’ll will see it. Look deep with in and the dark will be there. No matter how pure your heart is. Because the dark is like a seed, just one drop and justice will turn into cruelty, Love into doubt. Friendship into jealousy. Just one drop turn me for a happy little princess, into a demon of vengeance.”

    Reply
    • pentopaperwriting

      There’s a very strong voice here! I think you’ve done a great job of capturing this character’s essence and really getting inside his/her head. I also love that you chose to explore your villain in this way instead of your protagonist!

      Thanks for sharing,

      Sarah

    • Azure Darkness Yugi

      Your welcome. It’s often said that the villains are more interesting then the protagonist. Especially if you see their point.

  6. Adina Rizwan

    I have written about a girl who always thinks optimistically:” In the small deserted village I saw myself as a lonely maiden wandering through an enchanted forest.The leafless trees seemed to me as trees full of captivating flowers.I saw the dirty lanes that led to my small almost dilapidated house as golden pavements glistening even in the dark of night that directed me towards my castle full of wonders.I was a princess in my own different way which made the world seem to me as a different place where everyone was a king of his domain.”

    Reply
    • Pen to Paper Creative Writing

      Interesting! We don’t often encounter characters who always think optimistically (but we commonly cross paths with characters who always think the opposite way, as eternal pessimists!). There’s a lot of potential there, but I would be so curious to know why she always thinks that way, and if it’s a struggle for her to look on the bright side of everything. I would think that being constantly optimistic would be exhausting in its own unique ways.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Sarah

  7. Unidentified Me

    For now I keep myself together. I am going to get my life together. I know I can do it this time. At least I hope I can. No No! This is crazy! How many years have gone past? I am strong enough. I am at least determined enough. I will overcome. I just know it.

    I am a Harvard student. 2nd year. And I do so well. That’s the problem though isn’t it? That has always been the problem. They all look to me to be all right. To accomplish more. To go farther. I am the one who is going to make something of myself.

    And yet. And yet.

    I feel my mind breaking mind. I feel my soul tearing apart. There is no reason for this now. Everything is well in my life. If I didn’t break back then there is certainly no reason for me to break now. Everything is good now. Everything is safe. I am safe.

    And yet. And yet.

    I woke up screaming in the night again. They had found me. All of them. They had their hands on me. I wasn’t free after all. And the worst part is I didn’t fight. I just sank and sank into oblivion. Oh how I fell.

    I’m too messed up inside. I just need to focus on making it past this next semester. To lose myself in my quiet moments of study. Then I’m not inflicting my crushed spirit on anyone else. I feel I am poison. Like I broke and now my mind and soul will continue to wonder like a living ghost for all the rest of my days.

    Oh but how that desire still stirs my heart to imagine! If I were normal. If my past were not really MY past. If I could but forget, forgive, move on. I could have people in my life again. Good people. For now I struggle with coherent thought. I struggle still to survive it all.

    For now I keep myself together.

    Reply
  8. Adina Rizwan

    Thanks for the kind words. Well it was just my thought of posing the girl with optimistic approach. Basically the girl is poor and she thinks optimistically to make herself forget about her problems

    Reply

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