Voice is one of the most important elements of writing. Some would argue it is the most important element because it embodies a story’s mood and pace. There are two types of voice: character and narrative. Both are birthed from a person’s experiences and personality and manifests in their word choices, sentence structure, descriptions, and interactions throughout the story. Let’s look at character voice first. A strong, dynamic character voice can linger with people, become iconic. For example, six-year-old Scout’s voice in To Kill A Mockingbird is iconic for the decades fraught with racial injustice. Her precocious, straightforward, and feisty voice made it easier to start conversations about racial injustice, regardless of age or ethnicity.
Let’s SEE character voice in action:
“You ain’t fair,” I said. “You ain’t fair.”
Uncle Jack’s eyebrows went up. “Not fair? How not?
“You’re real nice, Uncle Jack an’ I reckon I love you even after what you did, but you don’t understand children much.”
Uncle Jack put his hands on his hips and looked down at me. “And why do I not understand children, Miss Jean Louise [Scout]? Such conduct as yours required little understanding. It was obstreperous, disorderly and abusive—”
“You gonna give me a chance to tell you? I don’t mean to sass you, I’m just tryin’ to tell you.” --pg 90, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this exchange, you can see Scout’s eye for fairness, justice. She uses informal words (i.e., ain’t, tryin’ an’); yet she strings them together in a way that tells the reader and other character that she’s formidable. Her feistiness is disarming and provides levity, making her a perfect narrator for a story loaded with injustices and people who just act without thought.
Now, let’s look at narrative voice. Ask anyone in the publishing industry to define narrative voice, also known as a writer’s voice, and the first response will likely be a quick glance to the ceiling as if it contains the answer. Then the person will likely say, “Well, it’s hard to define. You just know it when you see it.” Sandra Bishop of MacGregor Literary demystified the term, defining voice as, “Personality on paper.” If you recall, I said character and author voice is birthed from experiences and personality. A writer’s voice manifests in the same manner as character voice, with one addition: the themes or story choices. For example, Jodi Piccoult examines the ethical and moral dilemma’s underlying real world experiences (illness, school shooting). A writer’s voice cannot be copied. It cannot be denied. It cannot be changed. It can be polished and honed.
Let’s look at the following examples of two authors who write about fey:
He did not know how long he’d been clinging there. Long enough for the bone-cold water to drive feeling from his legs . . . The water’s chilly touch crawled farther up his neck and he tightened his grip, looking up to the clear night sky. Sighed. Weary. How long had he been doing this? –pg vii, Lament by Maggie Stiefvater
Her finger wrapped around the Winter Queen’s staff. It was a plain thing, worn as if countless hands had clenched the wood . . . She held the Winter Queen’s staff—and hoped. For a moment she even believed, but then ice pierced her, filled her like shards of glass in her veins. – pg 2, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Both examples show a character having an experience with frigid temperatures during a stressful situation. Stiefvater uses personification “water crawled” and one word sentences to build intensity. The reader knows what the character is feeling. These elements create image and rhythm. Marr uses vivid word such as “pierced” and “shards” and uses complex sentence structure. The reader knows what the character sees and holds. The writing is straightforward, smooth. Each author uses different building blocks to create a vastly different experience for readers despite the similar story foundation.
Voice is truly a unique and beautiful thing. If you know you writer voice, Congratulations. Those of you how come around here often, know I finally saw my voice one week ago. If you’re struggling to SEE your voice, try an exercise:
1) Listen to the words you use when you talk
2) Write a letter to a friend (not an email, a REAL letter). What you naturally write, is your voice.
3) What themes do you revisit in your stories?
4) Look at your writing in different stories. What words and sentence structure are always present?