Tone of Voice (It’s More than Personality)

by Cheryl Grey Bostrom
published in Writing

On an old Curly Girl greeting card taped above my desk, a woman’s red-fingernailed hand wraps around a vintage microphone. Artist Leigh Standley’s caption sprawls above the illustration: 

“Find Your Voice.”

Find. Your. Voice. Weaned on this advice, we fiction writers know that when an otherwise well-built narrative lies comatose on the page, only a fresh infusion of voice will revive it. 

We mean well.

We’re on it. Inspiration flashing, we roar into our languishing stories to resuscitate our prostrate viewpoint characters with a misguided solution: we inject them with more personality.

Our protocol? We load ‘em with extroversion or introversion, excitability or steadiness. Dose them with the stuff of charisma or grit or milquetoast. We infuse them with unique verbal timbre and inflections—and distinctive language. You know . . . like the quirky syntax in Uncle Albert’s pontificating. 

Whew. So much personality.

Personality’s a good thing, right? Doesn’t it give that young farmer a hair trigger when his baby cries? Or cause a shy child to fidget? Won’t personality make a bed-ridden grandfather laugh? Prompt a loner to scowl, shoulders hunched? 

Of course. But . . .

Personality’s not enough.

When I began writing Sugar Birds, protagonist Celia arrived in a third person objective point of view as a buoyant, witty teen, squabbling with her father—entertaining but superficial, and stalling. She evaded deeper emotional engagement, dodging me at every turn. I blamed her missing depth on the POV. Given a firecracker personality like hers, what else would keep her so shallow? Hadn’t I brought authentic interactions to the story? I’d worked with teenagers for years. Even raised a couple of them. 

Determined, I rewrote Celia in a new POV, this time in first person. I reached for her, drew her closer, and offered her an even bigger personality. Given the more intimate viewpoint, the girl responded . . . and talked to me, a little.  Her voice budded and the narrative inched forward. My heart bent toward her, hopeful. I believed that by upping her personality in this new POV, I had doctored her enough to breathe life into her narrative.

But Celia’s new POV and enhanced personality were not enough. The girl niggled at me from the page until I admitted that for her voice to develop fully, she needed to tell me more. No matter how much disposition and language, wit and style I gave her, that personality wouldn’t carry the whole essence of her personhood. Nor would it allow her to change as the plot progressed. 

Your viewpoint character needs tone, too.

I had to face facts: unless I conveyed Celia’s deepest motivators and the worldview that emerged from them, she’d be sock puppet empty on the page. How could she connect with readers in that condition? Clearly, she needed to fill her personality with attitude. 

She needed tone

To provide it, I had to understand what was churning inside her, what compelled her. What was the “why” behind her words and actions? How had her life circumstances, personal history and ideology shaped her heart and mindset? 

My eye again caught the greeting card I mentioned earlier. Below the red fingernails on that microphone, I read this:

“Find your voice, then listen to it.

Even when it shakes.

Especially then.”

The word “listen” leaped at me . . . and a light went on. Here was a teenage girl, shaking with heartache, and I hadn’t paid attention. I’d been too intent on her stage presence—her personality—to notice. More interested in directing Celia’s actions to conform to the plot than on hearing her pain. 

Ask. Listen. 

Humbled, I brought her coffee. Apologized for not listening to her. Told her I really wanted to hear her. To understand what she believed and what she was feeling. To write her truth. “About your dad, for instance.”

She drank half the cup. Eyed me warily. 

“How about when your dad told you he was leaving you with Mender?” I said. A risk, my asking that. Coaxing could have shut her down.

Instead, her floodgates opened, and I got an earful. She ranted for ten minutes before her voice trailed off.

“So he left you.” Only a whisper, but she heard me. She whispered back, between sobs. 

Personality + Tone = Voice

I recorded her emotional deluge verbatim, scribbling notes. I listened intently, without presuming or steering or superimposing judgments or language on her. Asked her more questions.

And when I did, she let me in. Shared her belief that her father had deserted her, and how badly she wanted to retaliate. Her distinctive, dramatic personality intercepted her rage and longing, sorrow and passion, and expressed those feelings, all born from her sense of abandonment. 

From that moment, her emotions and attitudes—her tone—fueled her personality, and something magical happened. With personality plus tone, Celia’s voice became fully dimensional, and gave her story the engine it needed to dive deep and travel wide. Her voice painted the setting in colors unique to her perspective, even as she viewed herself in those same colors. She presumed other’s motives based on her worldview’s template. Her decisions flowed from those attitudes, and she acted them out as only Celia could.

Once her tone burst through, it tag-teamed with her personality, creating the voice that drove her narrative. Here are samples of where and how Celia’s voice showed up:

In her setting: When impulsive Celia jumps from her father’s car and runs toward her grandmother’s, she views the surrounding landscape through her hurt and anger:

“The rusty barbed wire quilting the fields may as well have been razor wire topping chain link, with me gripping the mesh. Angry as I was, the beauty still found me . . . Enormous trees lined the fields and hills between me and those mountains and beckoned me like mothers who care—nothing like mine.”

In her self-concept: The night she arrives at Mender’s, emotional Celia reacts to a farmer with suspicion birthed from her feelings of abandonment:

“’Sorry to interrupt.’ He flashed me a wide smile.

‘Not at all. This is the granddaughter I told you about. Celia? Jake.’

I knew it. My grandmother was telling every random person with an injured bird that my dad had dumped me here.”

In her choices: She jumps at the chance to hurt her dad for what she perceives as his rejection:

 “’I tapped my chin, thinking through the week . . . This plan would give Daddy convulsions. Yeah. If I disappeared, that would punish him, all right. Gram would have to tell him I was missing. He would wet his pants when he got the call.”

A Tip and a Nutshell: 

Your viewpoint character’s voice needs both personality and tone. To avoid mistaking one for the other, remember that personality is typically static, predictable. Celia’s personality remains constant throughout her narrative. Tone, on the other hand, is dynamic. As Celia’s attitudes and feelings change, her tone transforms, too, and it propels her along her arc to the story’s conclusion.  

Voice. Listen to it shake. Discover both the implicit personality and tone that create it. Then, and only then, introduce it to your story.

Your comatose narrative will revive.

For most of her life, Pacific Northwest naturalist, photographer, and award-winning author Cheryl Grey Bostrom, MA, has lived in the rural and wild lands that infuse her writing. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the American Scientific Affiliation’s God and Nature Magazine, for which she’s a regular photo essayist. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild, she has also authored two non-fiction books. Sugar Birds is her first novel. She currently resides near Lynden, WA.

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