Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Have you ever had difficulty conceptualizing the writing term “voice”? I hear about it all the time “looking for a fresh voice...” and “be careful not to edit out voice!” I realized - if I’m going to be a writer, I had better figure it out! So what is it, exactly?

To what I can make out, it is the personality of the character. Our style of writing reflects the character’s beliefs, values, age, morals, outlook on life and the world in which they are living and reacting. Essentially it is their worldview, and it comes to life in the words.

Voice can be seen in the way the words flow, the style of speech (slang, vocabulary), and the “feel” of the character’s inner cognitive processes. Voice is unique, just as every human being is unique. Characters have individuality and idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. When reading, the reader can immediately enter the character’s individual mindset as well as catapult directly into their world.

So how do we know if our character’s found voice? We should begin by looking within ourselves – to our own beliefs, fears, hopes and dreams. We insert some of our own personalities into our characters and inject a little piece of ourselves into voice. And that makes it authentic.

Sometimes we notice a voice more because it abhors us. The one that stands out for me the most is Zoey, from the House of Night series:

Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker. Kayla was talking nonstop in her usual K-babble, and she didn’t even notice him. At first. Actually, now that I think about it, no one else noticed him until he spoke, which is, tragically, more evidence of my freakish inability to fit in.

That first paragraph rubbed me the wrong way - all I can think of is snotty. The character seemed falsely teen, and I felt like the author was trying too hard to sound ‘cool’, and failed miserably. I closed the book, permanently.

Conversely, a voice I fell in love with immediately:

The sound of the front door slamming echoed up the stairs and a voice yelled, ‘Oi! You!’ Sixteen years of being addressed thus left Harry in no doubt whom his uncle was calling; nevertheless, he did not immediately respond.

Harry Potter, of course! This is a smart, well-educated teen, with an attitude and a mind of his own! He doesn’t bend to anybody, especially his disrespectful uncle. What teen wouldn’t connect with that?

Another voice that I think is worth discussing is Bella, who has somehow connected with zillions of teenage girls (and the majority of their mothers as well):

I was sure I looked exactly the same as I had in Phoenix. Maybe it was just that the boys back home had watched me pass slowly through all the awkward phases of adolescence and still thought of me that way. Perhaps it was because I was a novelty here, where novelties were few and far between. Possibly my crippling clumsiness was seen as endearing rather than pathetic, casting me as a damsel in distress. Whatever the reason, Mike’s puppy dog behaviour and Eric’s apparent rivalry with him were disconcerting. I wasn’t sure if I didn’t prefer being ignored.

Bella’s self-deprecating style is instantly identifiable, and I think the majority of teenage girls feel that way – body issues, wanting to just blend in, and confusion over their newfound sexuality. It works because it intimately touches girls’ inner thoughts and feelings, and makes them feel connected to the character, and thus normalizes their own experience.

What voices stand out for you – good or bad – I’d love to hear about it!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Wow, is it really this quiet on a Tuesday? Let's shake things up!

Voice is an interesting issue, one of those things that's almost impossible to define in concrete, useful terms. The ol "I know it when I see it." I like that you've drawn the discussion back to character voices. Author and character voice always wind up blending, but most of the ones that really stand out to me come through the characters.

I think it's a given I'll mention Jacqueline Carey, especially considering I talked voice with her in the interview. Her own voice, when she lets it loose, is marvelous, and it's interesting watching it blend with each character's voice between trilogies. Likewise she switched to immensely terse and stripped prose for Santa Olivia, quite a contrast to the Kushiel books, but very fitting for the character.

Another excellent voice I read this year was Gail Carriger, whose protag in Soulless/Changeless/Blameless has the most wickedly appealing blend of prim, proper behaviour and tongue-in-cheek humor, and blunt, matter-of-fact statements. The voice shines at its best, in my opinion, during the naughty scenes :) I still need to follow up my book-by-its-cover of that read.

I find your comparison of House of Night and Twilight interesting, because right away I see exactly what you mean. One of these heroines is definitely more appealing than the other. And yet I'm not fond of Bella Swan, and found her equally snotty at times. Eventually I realized, at least for me, it feels like an inconsistency in the voice. It's like the character should be that smart, awkward, self-conscious girl who reads Emily Bronte for fun, but maybe Meyer isn't quite as familiar with that, and brings of her own teenage memories. The idea is there, but it comes through as someone I'd classify overall as preppy and perhaps stuck up, wandering through the story telling the reader what an awkward outsider she is.

As you say though, either way, it's a voice that normalizes the experiences of its target readership, and if awkward outsiders can identify with this character and see that she's so obviously not the way she keeps painting herself (you know, aside from being self-threateningly clumsy), then it can mean maybe they're wrong about themselves to. Damn addictive stuff, I imagine.

Janet said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and claim there is a difference between an author's voice and character voices. As you all know, I struggle with finding my voice in writing - that natural sound where when the reader is reading, words flow and it sounds 'right'. Now, within that voice, characters will be heard (and I totally agree with the character's beliefs, values, morals shaping how she sounds, reacts, etc). But even though the two (author and character) are similar, they should have a different sound.

I think - remember, me blabbering, thinking out loud here - that writing in 1st person allows a much deeper blending of author and character voices (as in the examples you've shown). The character is telling the story - 1st person with no point of view from anyone else in the story. But when you're writing 3rd person, there's the issue of making sure everyone is heard. Author and however many characters you're going to give POV to - in romance, that's usually 2 (hero and heroine). Sometimes, the bad guys gets his POV and for sure the author better have a different 'voice' for him!

I'm going to again reference Karyn's amazing voice, especially since I just did a mini-read of 50 pages of her novel. She, as the author, has a very chick-lit voice. Lily, her heroine, although still light with a touch of snark, has a very distinctive voice. And Chase, yummy hero, moves away from the feminine side of chick-lit and has a strong, decidedly masculine voice (complete with some foul language and his own favorite sayings all stemming from who he is). Three separate voices.

K - now you've got me thinking about voice again - and trying to get it wrapped around my head. I think what I'm going to take from all of this is that voice is much more than just style. There's depth and resonance (within the author and for the reader, as you pointed out with your examples and likes/dislikes). And it's no wonder agents and editors are looking for that uniqueness - not just the tone, but the rhythm and heart, as well.

Great thought-provoking post today, Joanne!!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
I have to admit I'm a bit lost when it comes to a discussion of voice, so your post has been very helpful. I've been thinking of it as the author's world view rather than the character's. How the author thinks and sees the world. But I guess it's kind of an amalgamation of the two world views, both author and character.

The thing that struck me about the examples you gave is how they affected you. You either instantly hated or instantly loved these characters. You connected with them on some level. Is that what voice is? That direct connection between author and reader through the character? Perhaps voice is finding some universal human truths through our characters that many readers can relate to and latch on to.


Karyn Good said...

I love Tara Janzen's voice. Here's a sample of the internal workings of one of my favorite Steele Street characters. Taken from Crazy Kisses.

Geezus. Kid Choas Chronopolous shifted his gaze from the deluge outside the cantina's door to the other patrons in the smoke-filled bar; one old man he could take on his worst day-and today was definitely headed in that direction; two young whores he wouldn't take on a bet; and a half a dozen rats who looked like they could take him without breaking a sweat.

Oh, and to be contrary, I'll weigh in a say I enjoyed Zoey and the first couple of books from The House of Night series. I also enjoyed the Twilight series. You're right, two very different voices!

Karyn Good said...

Thank you for the wonderful compliment, Janet! Needed that today :)

Joanne Brothwell said...

I've been waiting all day to see what you'd say about my post - Especially with me citing Miss Swan! To be honest, I was a little scared!

Perhaps you're right about the inconsistent voice and how readers can relate to that inconsistency in themselves as well.

Thought-provoking comment, Hayley!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Janet,
I agree with your thoughts about character's voice and author's voice being different.

I see a character's voice as a tiny slice of the author, just because it is generated from that particular author's worldview. I hope I made that clear in the post?

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Jana,
I have to admit, reading is all about first impressions for me, and I base my first impression on my emotional reaction. If I can relate to a voice because of a similar experience,or similar mindframe, I keep reading.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Karyn,
Wow, distinctive voice in that snippet! To be fair to poor Zoey, I never got past page three to find out if she was snotty or not. I'm feeling a little guilty for using that example - Sorry PC and Kristin Cast!

Helena said...

What a good topic, Joanne! You have taken a very interesting and thoughtful perspective on it.

I have had the same uncertainty about what is meant by voice that many of you have already mentioned. And I can see the logic in thinking of characters' voices as "slices" of the author's voice (excellent image, by the way).

I also see voice as the tone that the author chooses as the most authentic way to present the story. I believe that this can be so characteristic of an author that you could recognize the writing without being told the name. But I also think that tone can change, depending on genre, or other differences in the type of story by the same author. Therefore, the author's voice could change from one story to another.

Ah, the sweet mysteries of writing! Fascinating to try to make sense of it all. I'm still searching for the the most authentic voice in which to tell my stories.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Helena, I'm still searching for the elusive authentic voice as well. Thanks!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

All day, Joanne? Hope my comment measured up! I save my snark for private settings rather than public forums. I can share the rest of my thoughts with you another time though, if you like :)

Voice is something I tend to leave to Janet's expert explorations, as she's spent so much time delving into it. My voice just sort of is, and I've never really thought too much about it, so I have little in the way of advice or explorations on it.

Oh, and I'm sending you a blog group invite. Think you might enjoy it ;)