2013 Character Boot Camp: Voice Lessons With Heather Alexander

Originally Published: April 2013

by Gina Carey

photo by Jenna Ward

Writers who struggle with the concept of voice are frequently told, “You know it when you see it.” As Heather Alexander, assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, pointed out, editors and agents also note when they don’t see it. Creating a strong, fresh voice is essential, she said, for making a book stand out.

In five “voice lessons,” Alexander discussed how writers can use voice to reveal character effectively. Here are the five components of voice that she recommended mastering, along with book recommendations where those elements of voice shine.

1. Diction

Diction, or word choice, is not limited to characters’ vocabularies, Alexander said, but also includes their styles of expression and the things they are interested in or notice. While details make a story rich, some cultural references, she warned, can quickly become dated.

Recommended for Diction: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

2. Perspective

Alexander defined perspective as a character’s mental view, or how a character’s experiences influence his or her world view. Setting, Alexander added, can change characters’ experiences and shape their perspective.

Recommended for Perspective:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Au Revoir Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

3. Character

Alexander asked participants to think of their favorite characters in literature and then analyze why they are so appealing. Motivation, she said, is a primary force that drives voice and creates a sense of character. And many times, a character’s motivation is a layer deeper than we think.

Recommended for Character: Chime by Franny Billingsley

4. Dialogue

Dialogue is any verbal exchange in a manuscript (not including interior thoughts). Alexander noted that good dialogue conveys voice and personality in a natural, authentic manner. Dialogue should be more polished than people normally speak, but should not read like a snappy sitcom. She recommended reading dialogue out loud to see if it flows naturally.

Recommended for Dialogue: Freak Show by James St. James

5. Interiority

Interiority, or a character’s thoughts and feelings, can raise the emotional stakes in a story. It includes how characters observe the world and objects in it, as well as how they express their reactions and desires. Without interiority, the reader loses a connection with the character’s emotional journey.  When used effectively, interiority does not break the pace of the story.

Recommended for Interiority: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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