As writers, we hear again and again how important voice is in our work, particularly when shopping a piece or querying agents. But “voice” itself, especially if you are just starting out, can be a tricky thing to define in unequivocal, technical terms. What is this slippery, nebulous, yet powerful creature? What are its component parts? Is there a way to get better at it?
Voice: A Working Definition
You’ve probably heard some iteration of “you know it [voice] when you see it.” The same section of our brain, I suspect, that recognizes whether it’s Kathleen Turner or Michael Caine narrating a segment on TV lights up when we identify lines of prose as belonging either to Hemingway, Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, or Raymond Carver.
I also suspect that voice is more complex than what I can cover in this article, but I’d like to start at least with the idea that voice is the combined effect of a writer’s style, word choice, repetition, the rhythm and musicality of their language, sentence and paragraph structure, and other textual details.
Kinds of Voice
When we talk about voice, we tend to be referring to authorial voice, the unique way a writer has of expressing her story in writing. It is her unique style or tone that we can generally trace across her various works. Take for example, when a friend mentions that Vonnegut is her favorite author because, she says, “I just love his voice.”
I like the comparison (which people more sophisticated than I) have made of authorial voice as a kind of literary fingerprint. Distinct, with enough signature “you-ness” in it that a reader could pick you out of a crowd.
But a given piece usually includes a narrative voice and distinct character voice(s) as well. We use all three voices to weave our story. They can serve as key elements of world-building (using vocabulary and conventions related to formality in order to evoke a specific historic time period or fantastical realm, for example), create a sense of tension and/or suspense, and of course, be vehicles for characterization.
The way people write and speak, the words they use, and the way those words are strung together are influenced by their history and experiences, culture, their families and friends, and all facets of the greater world in which they live. What we say (or choose not to) and how we do that convey emotion, subtleties of meaning, and our relationships with other people.
And unlike in the real world, in fiction we are privy to the immediate, deepest thoughts of others when we read internal monologue. We can understand what motivates characters, what they desire and fear, and what the world is like from their point of view.
For me, strong, compelling voices are what turn fictional characters into believable ones I care about. Voice peels characters off the page and plops them, walking, talking, dreaming, and mistake-making into the “real” world of your book as it exists in your reader’s mind.
Whenever I struggle with a character’s voice, it helps me to reexamine my understanding of who that character is. Not only what they want, hope for, desire, fear, and are willing to risk, but also what their formative years were like. How does all that they’ve experienced manifest in their actions as well as their voice? Are they self-aware? Quiet? Impulsive? Naive? Do they behave or speak differently based on who is in the room?
Narrative Voice and Story
The narrative voice of a work depends on the POV from which it is told. Your narrator, as visible, active, or invisible as you might make them, is still another character to consider in your story.
Selecting the right POV and nailing the voice of my narrator tends to be one of the larger hurdles in my writing and rewriting process. When a story isn’t clicking into place the right way, I find it helpful to ask myself some of the following questions.
First, who is the person telling the story in this draft? And is that the person best positioned to tell it? The ideal narrator, for me, is not just who can recount what happens but support what the story is really about.
How does the narrator’s voice blend, harmonize, or contrast with those of other characters? Is it wry? Honest? Self-effacing? Sympathetic? Humorous? Does it build tension as a result of sentence structure? Is it plain spoken with a kind of austere, brutal beauty? What effect does that then have on your reader?
And, how do these voices, particularly that of the narrator, the filter through which your reader experiences and interprets the events of the story, support or convey the theme of your work?
A Note about Your Authorial Voice
We’ve now reached the part of the article where sentimental music begins to play. I look at you, my eyes bright and shining with tears, and I say, “But, dear Writer…It’s been in you all along.”
Some believe that voice can be taught, but I tend to think that you do, in fact, already have your own voice as a writer. It might be developing or buried just under the surface of a current writing style that is a close fit or an approximation of another author you think you should sound like, but it’s there.
If you read and write voraciously with a ferocious heart, chances are it has taken cues from your favorite books and the dazzling, heart-rending sentences (too numerous to count!) which you have ingested, your voice quickening unconsciously like a plant turning its face instinctively toward the sun.
Chances are too that it will breathe with some of the same speech patterns used by your parents, your best friends, and people from the various neighborhoods in which you have lived, but it’s there.
So, dear Writer fretting about your voice. I humbly believe you already have one. It’s been in you all along.
Can you refine and polish it, punch it up in places with even more signature “you-ness”? Yes. Write and rewrite. Tinker and play. Read, indiscriminately at times, and eavesdrop with an ear for prosody. Re-read your own words, aloud if it helps, as your rewrite.
A Final Tip
Please remember, I offer these thoughts merely as a fellow sailor on, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s words, “the sea of story,” waving and signaling from the deck of a different boat. I am not the expert who dictates what your voice and work should look like, and my own thoughts and methods might change with time. Take what makes sense for you. Ignore the rest.
And Now, a Prompt
Write a scene in which two couples meet for dinner during a double date. Aim for 500 to 800 words. Then rewrite that scene as a bit of gossip, narrated by a different character.
For example, let’s say in your first attempt, written in third person limited, one of the couples lets an old argument spill over at the restaurant and sour the evening.
In your rewrite (let’s try first-person POV this time), their waiter is catching up with a friend over the phone and begins the conversation by recounting the awkward double date he just witnessed.
Now reflect, has the point or theme of your story shifted? What does each version of the scene seem to be saying? Do you recognize any traits of your emerging authorial voice in both? How are the characters’ voices different based on who is telling the story?
Tell us in the comments: What did you learn about voice in this post?
The elder daughter of Korean-Canadian and Austrian immigrants, F.E. Choe currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards. Follow her on Instagram @f.e.choe.