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Joseph Elliott

Developing Voice

Author of the magnificent Shadow Skye trilogy explains how he created and developed unique narrative voices.

My review of 'The Broken Raven' is here.

I love writing characterful voices; it’s one of the things that excites me the most about writing. In fact, the way Agatha speaks in The Good Hawk was the gateway into the whole novel for me. Her voice was so clear in my head, and listening to it helped the words flow onto the page. Hers is a unique voice with select vocabulary and distinctive speech patterns, influenced by the fact that she has Down’s syndrome:


The sea is a grey colour today with only a bit of white. It looks like broken rocks. When I am looking I have to do walking as well. Otherwise the blood will freeze inside you. That is what Lenox says.


The Broken Raven introduces a new character called Sigrid, who also has a distinctive voice, peppered with idiosyncratic slang:


He looms over me, his breath harsk as milkreek. Dark blue ink drips from the end of the needle. I close my eyes as the stabbin starts again.


My love of voice probably comes from my background in acting and script-writing. As an actor, all you have is dialogue, and it’s up to you as a performer to decide how each character will sound. I’ve spent the last twelve years inventing characters and voices for performance, so I suppose it was only natural to draw on that experience when I started writing novels. 


One of my pet hates when reading multiple-narrative novels is when the characters all sound the same, so I knew early on that I wanted my protagonists to sound distinct. Consequently, I made some bold choices and, as a result, when I write, I can hear them all very clearly. Agatha’s voice was influenced by my years spent as a teaching assistant at a special educational needs school. I worked with lots of different children during that time, including many with Down’s syndrome, and the way they communicated – and how I communicated back with them – undoubtedly informed her speech. With Sigrid, I enjoyed the creative freedom that her voice allowed. She uses invented words such as clutterflap (chaos), quickspit (fast) and scraggin (unpleasant) which I had great fun coming up with.


My advice to anyone experimenting with voice is to make strong choices and see where they take you, read the dialogue out loud to see if it rings true (and to check that your characters don’t all sound the same), and most importantly, have fun!

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