(No, it has nothing to do with the reality show.)
Every character has a voice. I express this to Wordsmith a lot; I say that ‘strong characters have a strong voice.’ It’s a way — the _main_ way — a character interacts with the reader. When you can hear the character talking, they become less words on a page, thrown on like limp spaghetti, and more like a movie script being enacted.
It’s not just about an accent. It’s not just about aphorisms, or turns of phrase. It’s the way that you _hear_ them talking. They’re still just words, but you can hear the emotion, the pauses, the tenseness and sultryness, You won’t need to add artificial exclamation points and ellipsis. It’s like your character is good enough to improvise their own dialogue because you ‘know’ what they’re going to say in response to anything.
When I say that “I haven’t found the voice for a character yet”, it means they’re going to be a little slower to write. They’re actors still, coming into the scene to say their lines and then going back off. I don’t wonder if they’re tired, hungry, or peppy. I have to consider their situation, their surroundings, and make them observe more. They are the ones who lack the ‘pop’ of a living, breathing, character.
How do you give a character a voice?
They have to earn it. And learn it.
They have to be dragged from scene to scene, until they find that moment of awesome that you make for them, where, like any hero or heroine, they rise to that moment and it defines them. It doesn’t have to be action. It could be inaction, letting something go that will affect them later. It could be a call of bravery or a breakdown that lets you see them in full color for the first time. Until then, they’re just words defining a picture, and poorly at that sometimes.
Hijacking the ideas from titular show for a second as an example; picture if you will, each character coming onto a stage for the first time, where you can’t see them, only hear them. They have a purposefulness you don’t understand yet. They have motivations you haven’t come up with for them yet. All they have is their unique voice, and you are the one that has to pick them for potential development. When you turn and see them, and add them to your novel, you decide whether they’re good looking as they are, or if they need a makeover. But it’s their voice that has to make you turn about and let them work with you. You have to hear something in it. You have to believe that they can be more with your work.
But not all characters find that next level right away. Some of them get supplanted by breakout characters with bigger, better, brighter, badder voices. “Main characters” have voices you can relate to strongly, and that is why they get the best lines and most memorable monologues.
But only you can find the voice for each of your characters.
You are the narrator, director, and casting head for your novel. Each character that walks through the pages, onto the stage and scene, has some level of voice, or they’re just an extra. But main characters have to have that time to develop properly, and sometimes no amount of forcing ideas on them work. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on them; it just means you haven’t found their sound yet.
When you find yourself quoting or reminiscing on things a character has done with a smile, they’ve got their voice. But until that happens, you have to keep writing their dialogue until they step up and say, ‘Hey, I should say it THIS way.’
And then you’ll know.