It's one of those vague publishing terms that's thrown around all the time but the definition changes depending on who you talk to.
Some people say it's elusive, a "je ne sais quoi." Something they can't put their finger on but always want it in their books.
To me, it never seemed that difficult because I always took "voice" to mean "personality."
And personalities aren't so hard to create, right? That's the basis of what writers do. We create characters that should (hopefully) feel like real people. And real people have personalities.
To show that on the page does take practice. But it's not elusive at all.
First, you have to figure out what kind of personality your main character has. You could do a character survey where you answer questions from the point of view of your character. I know lots of authors who use this technique before they start drafting to iron out their character's voice. This makes it fun to come up with all sorts of backstory that can help build well-rounded characters (even if the reader never sees that backstory on the page.)
I actually...don't really use character surveys. Many of them are fun but ask questions like "what's your favorite ice cream flavor?" which is a hard question to answer when your character lives on an ice planet of doom. (Which I guess is an answer in and of itself. Sena, therefore, probably doesn't like ice cream at all.😅)
But generally, when I start a draft, I don't have a strong backstory in place. For me, it's more important to know how that character thinks and how they see + interact with the world around them.
Using Sena from CTNFTW as an example, I knew she had to be a loner because the entire story is about her learning to trust a wolf and find a new family. And to make that growth feel impactful, she had to start on the opposite end of the spectrum. She would need to be stubborn since she hasn't made many friends since losing her mothers. And I knew that the people around her wouldn't like her because her mother was an outsider, so that meant she would be standoffish and untrusting of others. That was the basis of her personality.
Once you have some kind of idea of your characters’ personality, you have to find the best way to show that in your words. Because you're not just describing what someone does or what they say, you're telling the reader how they're doing things, how they're saying things. Word choice and point of view are super important when developing voice.
For Wolves and Storm, I went with first person. I wanted a sense of urgency and I wanted readers to feel like they were experiencing events at the same time as the characters. So I deliberately chose first person, present tense.
The next step for me is word choice and sentence structure. Since Sena is no-nonsense and grumpy, most of the sentences are not too complex. They're informal rather than full of large, fancy words. When I used imagery like metaphors and similes, they were generally not funny or bright because that's not Sena's outlook on life.
To compare, I switched narrators for Storm and jumped into Remy's head. Which meant I got to bring in more humor because Remy has a different outlook on life than Sena. She's a little more cocky and is pleased by simple things...like big explosions. The sentences in her book are a bit more complex because she analyzes everything.
Now, I will tell you that Sena's voice was easier to draft than Remy's. Sena's voice really did pop out onto the page once I found the first lines. Remy, on the other hand, I had to fiddle with more and adjust a lot. But that's what revisions are for! Your first draft never has to be perfect--and that even includes voice!
Bonus Writing Tip: If you're drafting and you're not sure the voice is right, you can adjust it later when you revise. It's not always fun to have to redo a hefty potion of a manuscript, but it is the nature of writing.
Revisions make everything better. Trust whatever your process is! The important thing to remember is that voice is shown on every page, in every word choice and paragraph ending, so don't stop at a character survey. Weave your character's personality into every aspect of your story. That's what makes an author's voice unforgettable and a book un-put-downable.
A version of this post appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.