Striking a Balance between Proper Grammar and Character Voice

A struggle many writers face today is how to balance proper grammar and character voice. We’ve been taught not to end a sentence with a preposition, to avoid split infinitives, and the correct time to use “who” or “whom.” When you get to the “real world” of writing, however, focusing on proper grammar can stifle your work. There are techniques to value proper grammar but still give your characters a natural voice.

Certainly, when you are writing a piece in third person, you’re not in terrible danger. You can write your narrative with proper grammar without concerning yourself with what your character would sound like. When it comes to dialogue or a first person narrative, however, you need to focus on voice. For better or for worse, most people don’t speak with proper grammar. Sure, you can change the tone and patterns of speech within the quotation marks. There is a greater struggle, however, to carry that voice through your protagonist’s narrative. If your character’s narrative thoughts don’t match his or her speech, then the reader becomes distracted and your character seems disjointed.

Grammar and Character Voice
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Early on as a writer I discovered I would be distracted from my own work when I would focus too hard on individual character voice. Viewpoint writing quickly led to writer’s block for me. A trick to which I’ve become accustomed is to first focus on the writing, then focus on the voice. I write my first draft “properly” without focusing on individual voice. Then, during the revision process, I start “messing it up” a bit. This technique provides a mechanism to get the words on the page and power through the first draft in order to move the story forward.

Another way to strike a balance between a grammatically correct work and believable character voices is to use grammar as a tool to distinguish characters. I used to struggle with how to differentiate my character voices. I tend to gravitate toward reading and writing for the young adult genre. In this genre, proper grammar can be as much of an asset as it is a frustration. My main character may be educated, or high class, while her love-interest is less educated, or from the lower-middle class. I chart my characters’ personality traits and backgrounds, then consider how they would probably sound if they spoke out loud. Then, during my revisions, I am sure to make each character’s voice match his or her personality. Grammar, then, becomes a way to differentiate their voices. There are many techniques to differentiate character voices, but utilizing different patterns of proper (and improper) grammar provide a solution to the grammar/voice struggle.

We’ll be faced with this struggle until we can change the world and teach every student to adhere to grammar rules in their speech. Writers and teachers unite!

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