Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Is Voice?

New. Fresh. Unique. Distinctive. Agents and publishers are always talking about "voice" - that elusive thing we authors must nail in our writing.

But what is "voice"? I think there are really two ways to look at it or two parts to the same whole: the author's voice and the character's voice.

The author's voice goes with the author, from book to book. Certain phrases, tone, word choices, ways of description, style, etc., all contribute to the author's voice. I remember reading about how, within a few pages, you can identify a Stephen King book without looking at the cover. He has a distinctive voice.

Tawna Fenske and Simon Larter did an interesting experiment last week that tested an author's voice. I read the second post before the first one, so maybe already knowing blew it for me, but I did notice a definite change in style - or voice. And this is what is meant by author's voice - it's unique, distinctive and difficult to duplicate. At least, the good ones are.

Then there's the character's voice. For an example of terrific character voice, read The Sky Is Everywhere. Beautiful writing, lovely characters, heart-breaking plot...but, I think, what really made it memorable to me, what grabbed me and took me for a ride, was Lennie's voice. Fresh, new, unique - all those adjectives agents and editors use to describe the voice they're looking for. I loved her voice. She made me laugh and nearly made me cry.

This is Jandy Nelson's first book, so I don't know how much of her author's voice is in Lennie. But if all of her characters had the same voice as Lennie...well, then all of her books better be about Lennie, told from Lennie's first-person perspective. But we know, or at least hope, that's not the case.

So there is a difference between author's voice and character's voice. And both are important. You need to have your own voice as an author, but your characters' voices must also be well developed, unique and distinctive.

One more thing that I want to share because it may help keep you out of the loony bin. The Man and I were talking about the voices in my head over the weekend and, not for the first time, he said, "Just don't go talking about those voices to just anyone. If a psych doctor ever hears you, you'll wind up in an institution." And I said, "No, I won't. It's normal. For writers."

But I felt the need to explain to him, a non-writer, about the voices in my head. I asked him if, when he recalls a previous conversation, he remembers the dialogue in each person's voice, not his own, and he said yes. So I explained how, when I'm thinking about a conversation for my story, I "hear" the dialogue in the characters' voices much the same way. I also pointed out how Son #1 would tell a story differently than Son #2, even if it's the same story. He agreed. So I said, "Well, that's how Alexis is with me. She tells me the story in her voice. How she would say it, not how I would say it." Lo and behold, he finally got it! And now I know how to explain things to the psych doctor who knows nothing about writers, if I ever need to. Maybe you can use it, too.

This explanation just goes to show us - and our significant others and doctors - what "voice" is. Our author's voice goes into every book we write, but our characters' voices are what make each book different.

Have you ever tried to mimic another author's voice? Have you ever picked up a book without looking at the author and thought, "This must have been written by _____. It's totally her!"? Have you ever read more than one book by the same author and been disappointed because they sounded too much alike?


  1. I haven't tried except for a minor short story because in creative nonfiction class that was the assignment. However, I have had someone suggest I mimic another author's entire story.

    Back when I was in a critique group, I submitted a first chapter to a series I'm calling right now 'The Blood Prophesy' and that week we had a new member. He thought, based on that chapter alone, that English wasn't my first language. Not because it was bad, but because the structure was too well done. He suggested I read The Host by Stephanie Meyer and then rewrite it how I would have told the story. I haven't followed the advice and book one of that series is on hold, but it was interesting.

    And for readers who don't know me. English is my first and only language because I sucked at trying to learn Spanish. lol

  2. Sadly, I am currently reading The Sky was Everywhere, and although I enjoy the book, the voice is so heavy, it kind of annoys me. Sometimes I think there can be a thing as TOO much voice, which is also why I never finished the House of Night books... too many, like, ya know, omg, whatevers, like, totallys.

    Some authors with recognizable 'author' voices for me are Susanne Colasanti and Sarah Dessen. I could tell their books without seeing the covers any day.

    PS - I love Alexis' voice, and I love being in her head!

  3. Hm. Interesting question. I've never tried to mimic it, but sometimes if I read a lot of one author and then start wriitng, I do notice a similarity!

  4. Dawn, I would never think of using The Host as an example of good voice. I did read it and never once thought it had strong voice. However, I DO think it has a very different voice than her Twilight the point that they don't even sound like the same author. *Completely* different!

  5. Cheyanne, I'm glad you like being in Alexis's head! lol I you prefer 3rd person? I think there's a lot more potential to get too heavy with voice when writing in 1st person. I personally didn't think Lennie was too heavy - I liked being that close to her, but that's me. Although my books are 1st person, I think Alexis stands back a little in the telling of the story and then sometimes we get her actual thoughts. Whereas, Lennie tells the story pretty much right from her thoughts. If that makes any sense, it shows that "too close" 1st person can be too much for some people.

  6. Talli, that's funny! I haven't noticed doing that myself, but now I'm going to pay more attention. I do believe, however, that it's inevitable for our readings to seep into our writing. It's not a bad thing. It helps us learn, grow and improve, which is why we need to be adamant about reading a lot.


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