It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so it feels a little odd to be back into it, but today I’m going to go back to the prose blip. In fact, I’m going to go all the way to an extreme and really get into a very nitty-gritty part of prose: the voice.
What is voice? Simply put, voice is word choice and sentence structure. It’s the conscious choice and careful inspection of the way you say the things you say and write the things you write. Everyone has a voice, whether they realize it or not. When you say someone has a flat voice or a dull voice, you’re saying they’re being careless with their word choices or their word choices are poor and dull. It’s hard to truly define what makes a voice dull or not-dull, because there are so many ways to make the voice of your writing not dull. In fact, the easiest way to develop a not-dull voice is to keep writing. The more you write, the more refined your voice becomes and its definition becomes imposing.
Everyone has a voice. You have a voice, I have a voice, the kid down the street has a voice, the kid up the street has a voice. Your characters have a voice.
I’ve said before that characters are just you. They’re in your mind, you made them up, you have control over them. So why do they get a unique voice? Aren’t their voices just yours?
Let’s explore that.
Your Voice – The Voice of an Author
Before we really decide whether character have a voice distinct from yours, let’s really find your voice. If we can’t compare your character’s voices to yours, we can’t truly decide whether they are the same. That’s like comparing a gala apple to an invisible gala apple and deciding they’re different, even though the invisible apple could just be a friend of Harry Potter pulling a favor while remaining the same kind of apple.
Anyway…. What is your voice? How does your voice affect your word choice? Where does this voice come from and how do we develop?
First, your voice is simply the way you write what you write. For instance, my personal voice is a blend of poor analogies twisted out into excessive descriptions of something that more or less make sense and short, snipped sentences that attempt to convey inspiration, intensity, or importance through emphasis.
I’m not sure it works.
I have a friend whose voice is found in delightful, esoteric words. She twists them into the sentence in such a way that even if you don’t know the word, you get the abstract idea behind it. Her writings often come across as poetic, even when she’s not trying. It’s wonderful to read, and so engrossing. J. K. Rowling’s voice [to maintain the trend from the invisible gala apple earlier] is clear in her books regardless of which character she’s writing from: it’s simple.
I’m not saying her voice is flat or dull: quite the contrary. Rowling uses simple phrases and words, simple sentence structure, and simple description to create immensely complex scenes. She paints with simple colors to create beautiful works of art.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s voice reminds me of my great-great grandfather. It’s a slow voice, and his word choice almost begs you to read his descriptions in your mind with a slightly gravelly voice, like that of an aging veteran. He uses conceptual sentences and references to old things to present a sort of photograph: it’s sharp and crisp at the focus, and blurred around the edges. His voice pinpoints the detail he wants us to understand, while giving an impression of infinite detail all around.
Our voice affects our word choice in a variety of ways. For my friend, her voice leads her to choose big words, broad words, intense words. Where the phrase “the smell after rain” would suffice, she’s drawn to “petrichor”. Where “kind” would fit, she inclines to “benevolence”. For Rowling, it’s the opposite. For Tolkien, perhaps these words aren’t the point at all, but something else and these details are merely off to the side as unimportant words thrown into a more complex and valuable sentence. For me, it means pulling together a conglomeration of small, throwaway words and deeply meaningful words in a sort of wide-reaching palette that brings me personal happiness, regardless of the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment.
It’s hard to tell you how to develop your own unique voice, because you already have it. Yup. Your voice is already inside of you. However, your voice is also lazy. It’d rather not come out to play, but stay inside and toss useless word at you. To develop your voice, you need to use it. You need to consciously write and speak and act in ways that cause your voice to stand up, move out of the house, and get to work. After a while, it becomes second nature.
Their Voice – The Voice of a Character
But what about characters? What are their voices? Are they different from the author’s voice?
First, imagine what your author voice is: what makes your voice your voice? When you know that, you can easily spot a character’s voice. Simply put, character voice is the resulting changes in your author voice when you write from their perspective. It’s when you usually write with formal sentence structure and then your character’s personality suddenly calls for super short sentences and dramatically expressed thoughts. Your voice is still there, peeking around the edges of descriptions and thoughts, but the narrative is mostly dominated by the personal voice of your character.
Character voice has to be clear, or else your reader won’t be able to tell them apart. This is especially important if you’re writing in third person or have multiple characters you write from. They all need to be distinct, or else they’re not going to stand out as worthwhile and unique.
How do you develop a character’s voice? Well, much like your own voice, you just need to write them. If you never write your character, you’ll never know what they sound like. You need to be willing to dig in, dig deep, and discover what exactly they do when they speak and think and express themselves. Much like actions and personality, it’s a process of experimenting. You’ll know when part of their voice doesn’t sound natural. They’ll come across as stiff or flat or stale, sentences will lack variation in structure, and you’ll have this itch in between your shoulder blades. Something won’t feel right, even if you can’t pinpoint it.
We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? We write a scene and it seems all right, but there’s something just off. Your beta readers may enjoy the scene or chapter; they might not be able to see anything wrong with it that makes you feel like that itch got scratched. What is that problem?
The thing about voice, it’s hard for readers to catch on to it quickly. In fact, they rarely ever notice it consciously. Instead, they simply accept that you have a style and a voice and let you run with it. If your voice is super distinct they might realize that it’s there, but so long as it’s interesting, they’ll accept it and probably love it. One that immediately comes to mind is Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys Cycle. Her style and voice is so distinct and each of her characters has such a rare and unique voice all their own that you can’t help but notice and appreciate them.
When you force a scene, you drop the voice. When a scene lacks conflict, you drop the voice. When you make a character do something they wouldn’t do for the sack of the plot, you drop the voice.
How do you maintain your voice and the voice of your characters?
Practice a lot. It’s one of the reason I started this blog, actually. I wanted to develop my own voice, so that I could tell it apart from my character’s voice. I knew I had one, and I knew there was something similar in all of my books that could be drawn to voice, but I didn’t really know what it was until I started blogging. Not REALLY.
Now, I do.
Now I know that my voice tends to start off super casual and awkward and then get rather intense in the middle, self-deprecating near the end of the middle, and then either super sarcastic or inspiration at the end. Regardless of what I’m writing.
Now I know that my voice includes repeating important phrases for emphasis or artistic value. Now I know that my voice tosses in random words that aren’t usually accepted as common words for use.
My voice is stronger now for all of that. Maybe for you, it’s just writing novel after novel or poem after poem until you discover it. Regardless of how you do it, you do have one, and it’s worth finding. Then, you can begin to fully grasp your characters’ voices.