How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice

A small figurine stepping on a keyboard by KayVee.INC, via Flickr

by KayVee.INC | via Flickr

Today’s guest post, from editor Gabriela Lessa (@gabilessa), explains how to use outlining to generate a strong voice for your characters.


“I got some rejections where the agents said they liked the premise but it lacked voice. How do I fix voice?”

As a freelance editor, I hear this question a lot from my clients. It’s something that seems to baffle authors. What exactly is voice? How do you see if your character has a voice? How do you fix it?

The whole “it’s a subjective business” thing can be frustrating to hear, and voice might seem like the most subjective issue of all. It probably is. But when you’re completely lost, even if you’re not exactly a plotter, outlining helps a lot.

How can something as mechanical as outlining help with something as subjective as voice? By allowing you to really get to know your characters. Most of the time, lack of voice comes from not knowing your characters well enough. If you, the creator, don’t know these people you’re creating, it’s unlikely your reader will really want to know them. Voice comes from consistency (even if that means being completely inconsistent, if that’s your character’s main trait). Voice comes from personality. It’s not enough to throw in a few punch lines and call your character sarcastic, or to add a few current slang words and think you have a teenager. Voice comes from dialogue, internal thinking, and, most of all, reactions. Voice affects your plot. Only when you have a complete, believable person will you have a character with a voice. That’s where outlining comes in handy.

Before you begin, it’s important to know that not everything that goes into your character outline goes into your novel. If you outline well, less than half of the information will make it into the manuscript. But you need it anyway. Every detail counts when building your complex, three-dimensional people.

But where do you begin? How do you create people from scratch?

Begin with the big stuff. Fill in the gaps later.

1. Character Arc

You’ve probably heard about this one. You’ve probably seen some sort of graph about it (which can be very helpful, by the way). There are several approaches to this, and you can pick the one you feel comfortable with. Regardless of the chosen method, it all comes down to asking the big, important questions that will affect your plot.

  • Who are your main characters when the story begins?
  • Who will they be when it ends?
  • What is keeping them from getting to that ending (both internal and external obstacles)?
  • What are their fundamental flaws?

These are questions that must be answered for your story to make sense. So write it all down. To sum it up in one question: What do you need to know about your characters in order to have a plot that makes sense? That’s the first thing you should outline.

2. Main Traits

This is where your characters stop being just pawns in your plot and begin their transition to believable people.

Start with the basics, like physical description. You certainly do not need a big chunk of physical description in your manuscript (please don’t do that). But you need to know every detail about these people. Some won’t make a difference. But some will. Being a short, skinny boy in an adventure is not the same as being a big, strong boy. A story about a woman who is considered the most gorgeous lady in town when she’s a size 14 and has wild hair is a completely different story than that of a size 6 platinum blonde. So write down the physical stuff and see if it matches the character arc. Would such a small boy have the strength to beat a monster? Would a woman like this have a low self-esteem? Make sure it’s coherent.

Once you match your characters’ physical traits to their arcs, it’s time to map out their main psychological traits. What would be the main characteristics you’d notice about these people? What kind of qualities would they need to have to match the arc you built for them? Consider what would really stand out about their personalities. Ask yourself how people like these would react to each main event you have planned for them. Would they care about the inciting incident you planned? Would the crisis you imagined really be a crisis for people with these personalities?

Finally, it’s time to write down your characters’ back stories. Where did they grow up? How were their families? Do they have jobs? How did they get to this point? This is the moment to look back at everything that brought your characters to the inciting incident. Their history should help you understand how they got to this point.

Once you’ve done this, you should have people that make sense. Their history should match their personality. When you finish step two, you should be able to identify cause and consequence in everything your characters are and in everything they do throughout your plot. This is the time to think about reactions. Everything that affects the way your characters react to a big event goes here.

3. Details

This is the fill-in-the-gaps part. This is the part that makes your characters really unique.

You should know anything that you would know about your family and closest friends. Birthdays (and whether they like to celebrate them), likes and dislikes, favorite foods, favorite drinks. It might seem unimportant now. But wouldn’t it be weird to read a story that unravels through the course of two years, with a main character who loves parties and celebrations, and never see a birthday party? These details make characters believable.

And finally, a very important question to ask: Do your characters have any quirks and habits? Hair-twirling, nail-biting, lip-chewing—all of that counts. This is the stuff that will make your beats. Many authors hear they should use beats instead of dialogue tags to show more, so they dump random actions in the middle of dialogue in the hopes of showing. It’s true, beats do help show and they do bring out voice. But only when done right. Beats have to in fact show something worth showing. If you have a very confident alpha man, it’s unlikely he’ll be scratching his head or looking down at his feet when talking to a woman. If your heroine is known for being completely relaxed, it doesn’t make sense for her to bite her nails and chew her lips all the time. Beats are not there just to fill in for dialogue tags. They’re a great way to build voice. And you can only build voice when beats bring out your characters. When reactions show personality, you have voice.

This might seem like a lot of work for details that won’t even be in the manuscript. But the good news is there’s no rule for how you go about this. You can create spreadsheets. You can write it all down on Post-its and fill your wall with them. You can have one long Word document where you write it all down. And most importantly, this is flexible. You can go back and forth. You can add details as you get to know your characters. As long as you have it all written down, you can always go back and see if the details match the main traits, and if the main traits match the character arc. As long as they complement each other, you will have strong, three-dimensional characters your readers can see as real people. After all, loving and hating these fictional people is the best part of reading!

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , , .
Gabriela Lessa

Gabriela Lessa

Gabriela Lessa is a freelance editor and writing coach who loves to help authors make their manuscripts shine. You can find a list of her services on her website, www.gabrielalessaeditor.com, or follow her on Twitter (@gabilessa). Gabriela holds an MA in Narrative Journalism from the University of Missouri and has worked through the slush pile for several NYC literary agents. She lives in her hometown, Belo Horizonte, in Brazil, with her husband and their infant twins.

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12 Comments on "How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice"

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[…] Editor Gabriela Lessa explains how to use outlining to generate a strong voice for your characters.  […]

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[…] Today I have a guest post at Jane Friedman’s blog, and I think you’ll like it! It’s about that tricky thing so many of my clients ask me about: voice. You can check it out here! […]

eclecticscribe66

Great post! I’m saving this for future reference.

I’ve always liked what Hemingway said about a story — or character — being like an iceberg. After we spend plenty of time developing the character and his backstory, what the readers sees is just the tip of the iceberg. But it makes the character and the narrative voice so much richer.

Gabriela Lessa

Exactly! Just because it’s not directly on the page doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a difference somewhere. Hemingway is always a good reference to use!

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[…] did not extend to character and voice. So I was intrigued to come across this discussion of How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice. I’m still not sure outlining is mandatory, but the argument for its utility grows and […]

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[…] How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] week, in my post about How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice on Jane Friedman’s blog, I mentioned that the details about your character are the stuff that will make your beats. […]

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[…] stereotypes, and Amanda Patterson has 5 simple ways to describe characters. Gabriela Lessa explains how outlining can bring out voice, and Robin Patchen details how writers can seek and destroy banal and obvious […]

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[…] How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice (Jane Friedman) — Great tips here. This makes outlining seem a little bit more doable. […]

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[…] Friedman explains how outlining can bring out voice and holds together the entire story. This was a very enlightening read for […]

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