Over the past two and a half years, I’ve worked as a freelance editor and had the pleasure of editing several middle grade books. I’ve also finished my first middle grade fantasy manuscript. But most of all, I’ve read dozens of middle grade books, and there’s something about each one that takes me back to being a kid and speaks to my soul: the authentic voice of the novel.
Middle grade is a genre near and dear to my heart. It’s the genre that captured me and made me a reader, but more than that, there’s something honest and heartfelt about the voices of middle grade characters.
In my career as an editor, I’ve noticed that often when a story isn’t working, it’s not the setting or the plot that usually lies at the center of the problem, it’s the voice of the main character, and sometimes the lack of voice.
What is Voice?
I heard the term “voice” a lot in my college creative writing classes, but as a budding writer who was just beginning to take my craft seriously, there were so many terms that would bounce right off of me. Voice was one of them. After all, what does one even mean when they say that your story needs a strong voice?
Voice is the combination of not only the manuscript’s point of view but the narrator’s thought pattern and vocabulary and how you as the author express the emotional tone of the book (i.e. humorous, suspenseful, etc…).
For example, in the middle grade novel The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, the story is told from the first-person point of view. This allows the sincere and witty protagonist Coyote to be emotionally close with the reader. The world of the novel is colored by her view of it, and through that, she brings the reader lots of insight, and the reader in turn gets to be part of her struggles and emotional journey in a more intimate way than if the story was told in third-person. Coyote’s way of speaking in dialogue, thoughts, and the actions she performs in the book also creates a strong sense of that honest, curious, wit that makes up the voice of the novel.
Above all in middle grade, your kid protagonists need to sound like…well kids. Readers should be able to pick up your book and hear themselves in the voice of your main character, no matter what tone you are taking. But how do you know if you are achieving that?
How Do You Know if Your MC Has an Authentic Voice?
Here are a few guiding questions to get you started:
- Does the point of view of your story lead the reader to experience the action of the story in the strongest way possible? Would changing the POV make the story stronger and allow the character’s voice to be more resonant?
- Does the protagonist (outside of historical fiction) use words and language that is contemporary with kids today? Protagonists don’t need to use all the current lingo that kids use, but they shouldn’t be using lingo you used as a kid if the story isn’t set then. Again, kids need to hear themselves. Be sure your MC doesn’t sound like an adult in a kid’s body.
- What tense is your story told in? Does it help or hinder the voice of the story? If you write it another way, is it easier to express your character’s voice?
- What is your character’s personality? Have you expressed their personality through your linguistic choice (grammar, syntax, and diction), their emotional behaviors (their attitude and overall temperament including in actions), and the way they experience the world and express the world around them (this could include the cultural references they might mention).
Use these questions as a jumping-off point for understanding the voice of your manuscript and the main character who is driving it.
Crafting Strong Voice
The questions above are a great starting point, but I wanted to touch on a few more ways to create a strong voice in your story.
Remember when you were a kid? Hopefully, you do because you are going to need to draw on that to create an authentic voice in your middle grade novel. I want you to think back on being a kid. What did you want when you were a kid? What were your fears? What did you love doing? What was important to you? If you really want to tap into the hearts of kids and create an MC that resonates with them, you need to tap into your inner kid first.
Get to Know Kids Today
Understanding kids living in the world right now is also crucial to creating an authentic voice in your story. This goes for both contemporary realistic fiction writers, as well as sci-fi fantasy writers, in the middle grade space. Get to know the difference in voice between an eight-year-old and a twelve-year-old. Read lots of great books that have been published lately to help you get the sense of voice in middle grade lately. Ask your librarians what middle grade books kids have been loving. Kids today want to hear about kids like themselves.
Kids want to feel understood and see themselves in your characters. So make sure you know them first!
You Won’t Get it Right in the First Draft
I always love a good challenge, and before I finished the first draft of my novel, I probably would have stubbornly fought against this point. The perfectionistic tendencies in me drive me to want to get the voice right in the first draft. To have my character ready to shine when they reach the metaphorical finish line at the end of the book.
But…here’s the truth.
Your first draft is about discovering the voice of your story, not polishing it. Odds are that it will take you the entire book to find out who your character is and what their voice sounds like. But don’t let this discourage you. You will find the voice of your character and manuscript by the end, and if you don’t, put it away for a bit and let your brain work on figuring it out for you. But, where you really start strengthening that voice is rewriting.
As William C. Knott, in The Craft of Fiction so articulately put, “anyone can write–and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro.”
Since we aren’t aiming to make the voice sharp in the first draft, mentally prepare yourself to do a lot of rewriting and editing in the second draft. I was shocked at how easy it was to scrap the whole first half of my manuscript and rewrite it. In the first draft of my manuscript, my main character was boring, and his voice was bland at best for about 50% of the book. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I understood him and loved him. I felt his personality and voice come to life. So it was easy to go back to the beginning and redraft the whole first half of the book to match that voice. And, I have to say that even though it was a ton of work; I adore this version of my character and his story much more.
Don’t be afraid to tinker and rewrite your darlings until you can hear them come alive on the page.
Books with Strong Voice to Them
Here’s a small list of books that have brilliant characters with strong voices. As always, I urge you to go out there and scour your local libraries and bookstores and find your own list of books with strong voices. Find authors that resonate with how you want to write and read their work.
- The Midnight Children by Dan Gemeinhart
- The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
- Tight by Torrey Maldonado
- Voyage of the Frostheart by Jamie Littler
- The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling
- Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
Young readers want to resonate with the characters in middle grade books, so don’t be afraid of taking extra time to find and polish the voice of your manuscript. I promise you it will pay off for you and your readers.
Tell me in the comments: What was the biggest insight about voice that you got from this article?
Olivia Fisher is a children’s lit writer and freelance editor with an English degree from BYU-Idaho. When she isn’t dreaming about living in a treehouse or chasing down her two young boys, she enjoys curling up with a book, watching Star Wars, writing her next adventure, and trying to live in the state of child-like wonder that we all secretly, or not so secretly, miss. Follow her adventures on Twitter or Instagram, or hire her for your next editing escapade on Fiverr.