The Role of Voice in Writing

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing


The trouble with voice is that it’s nearly impossible to find an adequate definition.  The best I can say about voice is that while I might not be able to define it, I definitely know it when I see it.

Before putting together this post, I did a little research on voice by looking at books about the craft of writing.  Some books break voice down into distinct categories like “ceremonial voice” or “conversational voice” but I’m not sure pigeon-holing voice into rigid categories is the way to go.  After all, most of the time, the voice in a writer’s piece won’t fit into a neat little category but may challenge those boundaries.  Also, just because you know what category your book’s voice falls into doesn’t mean you know how to make the most of that voice.  Sometimes labels are just that: labels.

Where does that leave us?  Today I decided to share a few things I have learned about voice that have helped me in my own writing.

(1) Voice operates on multiple levels.

A lot of times, we hear people talk about the voice of a piece, but I find that generalization to be a bit naive.  Rarely does writing have only one voice.  In fact, there are usually at least two levels of voice in any given work.  (If you’re into meta-fiction, where the writer is offering commentary or where you have a story-within-a-story framework, you could have even more levels).  The most basic level is the narrator’s voice, the voice that’s telling the story.  We see this voice in the narration, description and other non-dialogue parts of the story.  But wait!  We also have the voices of the characters in the story, voices we usually only get to hear in dialogue.  So unless a story has only dialogue or only narration, we have to worry about at least two different types of voice: voice of the narrator and voice in dialogue.

Of course, when you’re in a 1st person Point of View (POV), the voice of the narrator and the voice of the protagonist will overlap because they are the same person.  This doesn’t mean, though, that the voices are exactly the same.  After all, the protagonist could be thinking in one tone of voice but talking in a very different tone.  For instance, imagine a protagonist who’s being very polite in dialogue but when we read the narration and get into the character’s thoughts, we hear a super-snarky tone.  Same character, but the dialogue voice and the narrator’s voice are completely different.

Also, there are times when you can eliminate either the voices of the characters or the voice of the narrator altogether.

Eliminating the voices of the characters.

Every so often, we come across a story that takes place completely in the narrator’s mind.  One great example is The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, in which we only get a snippet of dialogue, and even then we can’t take that dialogue at face-value because our unreliable narrator is telling us the story so we’re not sure if that dialogue is really “true” to what happened.  Since this story takes place almost entirely in the narrator’s head, all we hear is the voice of the narrator.

Eliminating the voice of the narrator.

Some stories, on the other hand, are so heavy in dialogue that we practically lose the narrator altogether.  One example is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, where with the exception of a few stage directions and dialogue tags, we really only get the voices of the characters in dialogue.  An even more extreme example is Seek by Paul Fleischman which is written as a radio play so all we have are the voices of the characters.

(2) Just because a piece is in 3rd Person, doesn’t mean the narrator doesn’t have a voice.

The temptation is to assume that just because a book or story is written in 3rd person, you don’t have to worry about voice.  Sorry, but in fact the opposite is true.  There are many ways a 3rd person narrator can have a voice in the story and these are conscious choices that you (the writer) must make.

Opinionated narrator.

Sometimes you have a narrator who has strong opinions and these attitudes neak out in the way the narrator tells the story.  One example is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Just look at the opening line.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Clearly, Austen has some opinions of her own concerning whether it’s the single wealthy men who are in want of wives or whether it’s single women who are in want of men possessing a good fortune.  Another great example is Matilda by Roald Dahl.  The contempt this narrator has for children (particularly spoiled, unexceptional children) comes across in the word choice: “blister.”  See the opening line below.

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.  Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think he or she is wonderful.

Invisible narrator.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have third person narrators who are subtle and unobtrusive that the reader hardly even notices that the narrator is there.  After all, there are times that the writer just wants the narrator to melt into the background so that the readers can focus on the characters and the story at hand.  Of course, invisible narrators don’t happen by accident.  They’re extremely difficult to pull off well and the writer must make a conscious choice to write the narrator this way.

One caveat: in the case of the invisible narrator, it’s not that you don’t have a narrator at all, but that the narrator’s voice doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Often this type of narrator is omniscient so it can pop in and out of character’s heads quietly and without making a fuss.  One lovely example of this type of narrator are books by Eva Ibbotson (Which Witch or The Secret of Platform Thirteen) where the narrator certainly has a distinct tone, but it’s so subtle that we hardly notice the narrator is there at all.  We just get carried away by a good story.

In the end, voice is tough to define and teach because it’s so flexible. The best way to really get a handle on it is to train your ear, so on Friday, I’ll give you a prompt that will help you hone your listening skills.

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