Hello and Happy Sunday, writers! Today we’re going to veer off the drafting-track in order to talk about “Voice.” It’s one of those subjects that writers talk about All. The. Time (go to a writer’s conference or two and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll come away with that trippy disassociate feeling where the word looks super weird and you kind of can’t remember what it even means anymore). I don’t know about you, but I never came away from those conferences with a better understanding of the subject. I think that’s because, in writing, you can be talking about several different things when you talk about Voice. There’s “authorial voice,” “character voice,” and “narrative voice” (there’s probably more, but those are the three I’m going to be talking about today)…but because we lump all of these very different things into a category headed by one (very weird-looking) word, it can get kind of confusing. So, I’m going to break it down and talk about them individually.
Authorial Voice is the foundation for all of the other Voices because it, essentially, is your “style.” The way you write. And I don’t just mean your chosen vocabulary, but also the types of characters you tend to write about, the way you format dialogue and how much of it you use, the genres you prefer, how much description or action you put in…Authorial Voice is everything you are as a writer. It also encompasses your personality, passions, and hobbies, because if you’re looking around for a profession for your character (for example) and you are very interested in Victorian pocket watches, you might choose “clockmaker” over, say, “wainwright.” Your Voice as a writer is what makes your work unique, because only YOU have your specific makeup of influences. Your plot in someone else’s hands would be a completely different book. Authorial Voice=Authorial Identity.
Here’s a blog that explains it much better than I can: 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice
Character Voice is, quite simply, the way your characters speak or think.
Each person has a unique voice. There’s the obvious, more tangible, stuff: accents, or voices that are raspy, gravelly, sweet, breathless, etc. But aside from those, every person also has unique inflections and manners of speaking, as well as different words or phrases they might use depending on their background. American oddities of language are a great example of this. One person may want a “soda,” while another may ask for a “pop” or “Coke” (no matter the actual brand of the drink). The term you use for “carbonated beverage” will depend largely on where you were raised. It’s the same for characters. Every one of them has an imagined “origin story” that informs the types of words they will use, the speed at which they speak, their accent, etc. All of these complexities create a rich, real person in the readers’ minds.
A character’s attitude will also inform their Voice. Think of the movie “Juno.” Now think how different it would be if Juno was a sweet, polite Southern Belle instead of a snarky, sarcastic teen. Totally different movie, right? Snarky and sarcastic was a HUGE part of her Voice. Now, you can’t just slap “sarcasm” on your character’s forehead and call it a day. Juno had her vulnerable, non-snarky moments as well, which is what made her a believable character. People are complex. Nobody is “one thing” all the time. Think of WHY someone might be sarcastic, or angry, or depressed. When are those layers of emotion stripped away into something different? How would the forever-happy character’s Voice change if someone tragic happened to him? Or how would the super-lonely-depressed character’s Voice sound if she finally made a friend?
A note on dialect: In writing, “dialect” is writing a character’s dialogue using “non-standard spelling” in order to convey an accent. A good example of this is Hagrid in Harry Potter. “You’re a wizard, Harry” becomes “Yer a wizard, Harry.” I’ve seen plenty of writing advise that suggests writing dialect is a huge “no-no,” usually because it can be extremely difficult to read. However, if it is done well it can add a fantastic element to a character and really flesh them out. One of my favorite book series is entirely written in dialect, doesn’t use quote marks to differentiate dialogue, and has no chapters. It was tricky to get into, at first, but once I fell into the rhythm it was amazing how much more I was pulled into the world and the character’s thoughts because of it. So, if you’re going to do it, do it WELL.
Character Voice is the (relatively) easy part. The difficulty (at least for me) comes in extending your characters’ limitations and peculiarities of language to the Narrative Voice in order for these people to feel totally realized. The best way I can explain this is…if Character Voice shines most brightly in dialogue, Narrative Voice is “the bits in between.” It’s informed by your Authorial Voice and the Character Voices in equal measures.
To use our previous example, if your character uses the word “pop” exclusively, and you write something like:
“I sure could use a drink.”
Officer Shamburger slid the cold soda across the table. “How about some pop?”
If this story is being told from Officer Shamburger’s POV (even in third person), this sentence’s Narrative and Character Voices are in conflict. A better choice might be: Officer Shamburger slid the cold can across the table. “How about some pop?”
It’s a small detail, I know, but small details can make or break the “reality” of your world and characters. If you want to evoke a particular place, person, culture, or time, you need to set your own peculiarities of language aside and adopt those of your characters/setting as much as possible, unless you make a conscious narrative choice to do otherwise. (My conscious choice is to continue using the word ‘okay’ even though it was supposedly invented in the 1800s. My excuse is that I write fantasy, and although I could invent a word that means essentially the same thing, it’s easier on everyone if I just use ‘okay.’ If I were writing historical fiction I would feel differently)
Narrative Voice needs to take your setting into account as well. My previous book was set in a jungle, and the main character was born there and had never known another climate. Therefore, I eliminated certain words from my vocabulary while writing it, such as “froze” to mean “stopped suddenly.” No one in this setting would have a notion or concept of “freezing,” so it had to go.
The last thing I want to mention is that Narrative Voice needs to take genre into account. If you are writing a very serious fantasy that is set entirely in its own world and has nothing to do with ours, you would not say something like “The dragon was the size of a Range Rover.” If Range Rovers do not exist in that world, do not use one as a size comparison. This is different, of course, for something like Harry Potter. Harry can very well think of things in “Muggle terminology” because he grew up in the Muggle world. His friend Ron, however, was born into the wizarding world and would never use a Range Rover as a comparison. So, really, this advice pertains to Narrative AND Character Voices. BOOM. Two for one. There you go.
So, Voice. I hope it’s a little clearer now! Try experimenting with Voice. Examine the choices you have made for your characters and see if they feel authentic to that individual. Comb the narrative bits in between and check whether you are being consistent with your vocabulary. If a character isn’t working, try changing their Voice and see what happens.