I Lost My Voice: Learning to Speak Like a Well-Developed Character

“You need to work on your voice.” My professor handed me a graded blog post and tapped the red-streaked pages. “How you speak is different from how you write.”

Her words hit like a punch to the gut. I sorted through my collection of voices—author, journalist, businesswoman, social media writer—but none of them belonged to me. They were all exaggerated facets of someone I hadn’t yet discovered.

The truth: I lost my ability to write as myself and as a result, my book characters have better voices than me.

I spend so much time telling other people’s stories, I forget the art of telling my own. I undress for my characters but in front of the world, I remain a prude hidden behind “How To,” “Five Steps” and a teacher’s high-level vocabulary. (Fittingly enough, I was in the shower when this realization hit me.) Granted, my natural voice does use complex words—I love language that melts on my tongue like chocolate—but when writing from my own perspective, I often use fancy communication as a mask.

The explanation for my quirk is simple: What is written becomes tangible, set in stone. Anything jotted down is copyrighted, which means who I am on paper carries an absolute quality.

Who I am on paper must be who I am beyond the margins of a page.

Distinctive voices are “must haves” for book characters. How they speak determines how they are perceived. Authors give them vocal imperfections, sarcasm, humor and identifying mannerisms.

Why should we, as the protagonists of our own stories, be any different?

From now on, I won’t write with sugar-coated truth and partial transparency because I want to find my voice again, to know myself as well as I know my characters.

To take the first step on the road to self-discovery, I purchased a journal to document my progress and creativity. Every week on social media, I will share some of my writing.

Maybe on the journey to finding my voice, you will discover yours, too.

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Before I write a novel, I outline my main character, create a profile of his or her background, likes and dislikes, mannerisms and insecurities. Once I understand them, I hear their voice . . . and they become living entities.

To find myself on paper, I present the deepest, darkest parts of me as an untidy spread, a stack of papers and photographs unfiltered and unsorted. My history is simple: I grew up in a small town, was homeschooled for most of my education. I lived with my family of six (I am the eldest of four) and had very few friends. Writing was my escape, then my passion.

History is a series of facts, but the depth and darkness come from what lies beneath the details. For example, when I speak to crowds, I am a beacon of confidence and knowledge. However, behind closed doors, I panic from the weight of all I do not know, wondering if my words will outlast me. The spotlight helps to expand my personality until it muffles the cries of my past self, the bullied middle school girl who was told her goals were silly and improbable.

Those cries haunt me . . . so I spent thousands of hours trying to prove them wrong. I hide the fact I’m a cliché by directing attention to fiction and accomplished feats. Expectations—I have too many of them on my shoulders. Parents, peers, professionals—they all look at me as if I should be someone greater than I am. What if I fail them more than myself?

On the surface, I appear normal, maybe a tad quirky. I talk with my hands. I act like a 40-year-old in a 20-year-old’s body. I have a variety of laughs (the delayed bird squawk is the worst) and I can’t decide if I’m attractive or just pleasant.

My personality gifts me with uncomfortable situations—I’m the first to speak up against an injustice, the first to charge into battle, the first to say, “If you won’t do it, I will.” Needless to say, I often make life difficult for myself.

To complete my character profile, the last few details to note are my likes and dislikes. I like to sit at cafes with a notebook and a good cup of coffee. I like lavender, birds, long walks and sea-battered cliffs. I like good stories, anything blue and old band music. Things I dislike: Drivers when they don’t use their turn signals, people who never respond to text messages, sexism, ignorant remarks, the general lack of care for other humans and fast food chains.

This is me, stripped down, raw and exposed . . .

So how should I speak?

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If you were summarized into a character profile, how would the description gesture to your natural voice?

Grab a journal and join me on the journey to finding our distinct character voices.