On Voice: Three Ways

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You have a strong voice, because you have a strong personality. I don’t think I have a voice at all.”

“Are you joking? I think you do have one and I don’t.”

“Maybe that’s it. Maybe we all don’t think we have a voice. Which would mean personalities only exist in others’ reflection of the self.”

-From a conversation with a friend/agent/author

The terminology and explanation of “voice” in writing has always alluded me. At my graduate program, I never received a straight answer on the topic. Voice was described as “the heart and soul of the book,” “each author’s voice is unique,” “voice is what matters,” “the author has a strong voice,” “I connected with the voice.” All probable truths, but as a writer-in-training, I needed to know exactly how to create and manipulate voice. What made up its parts? What made it strong or weak? What made a reader connect to one voice but not another?

While sitting in on an editors’ discussion about voice, I realized that my confusion had to do with the fact that the term Voice is applied across the board for different aspects of writing. So before I could delve into how to create Voice, I needed to understand that Voice is actually delineated into three different areas. There is the Authorial Voice, the Narrative Voice, and any number of Character Voices. In titling these separate and yet wholly connected aspects of Voice, we basically describe them. But for my own sake I’ll write a bit more to keep my ideas clear.

Authorial Voice I find is most closely tied to a writer’s style. It is how readers’ determine the difference between, say, Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. Both write young adult, dystopia, high-action, high-concept novelists. However, you know when you’re reading a Roth novel that its not a Collins’ novel. This type of voice can, although not necessarily will, span an author’s career. Career spanning Authorial Voice brings to mind authors Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Although, it should be stated that an author’s personality may be very different from his Authorial Voice.

The Narrative Voice is the personality of the narrator and directly effects the tone of the story. Whether omniscience or first person the narrative voice is the choice of the author, it is affected in some way or another, it may never be generic or neutral.

 

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In Illuminae, one of the multi-narrators, is just a human transcriber of security video. The authors’ infuse so much personality into the simple word by word description that the transcriber becomes a character through his omniscience. Point being it is impossible to create a neutral or generic Narrative Voice. Simply deciding which details are important to put on the page is a Narrative Voice choice. In first person narratives, the line between Narrative Voice and Character Voice becomes a bit blurred, however they still exist because there can never be a “voiceless” story. (This also applies to all forms of non-fiction writing.)

 

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I think Character Voice is probably the most commonly held idea of voice. When someone states “I connected to the voice,” they are usually speaking about the protagonist’s Voice or the Narrative Voice (if in first person). (Note that because I work in children’s publishing and am reading mostly young adult, the majority of manuscripts are in first person.) Ideally, each individual character has their own specific voice. Tommy Wallach’s We All Looked Up is told through four third-person perspectives and a successful example of differing Character Voices. I can say it is successful because even without the chapter titles (characters’ names) I knew which characters’ perspective I was reading. This discussion obviously leads us to ideas of Characterization, which I’m not wholly certain is a literary term, but it is in performance, so I’ll use it. (On a side note, I think every writer should take an acting class, as the study of characterization through physical embodiment is great advance to writing character.)

So, where have we ended up? When someone speaks about a piece of writing’s Voice, they could be referring to any one of the above or all three. However, as a writer, one must take into consideration all of them. The easy part is this: Voice, no matter which one we are discussing, is nothing more or less than word choice. Word choice in internal dialogue, external dialogue, and descriptions of the world around them. (On another side note: it could be said that an unreliable narrator is created by opposing their external word choice and their internal word choice. Examples: American Psycho, Notes from Underground.)

By parsing “Voice” into three different forms, I find it easier to digest and consciously think about as I write. Which is where I am in my writing…adding more personality to the manuscript here and there, creating a new character, making certain she is different from others. It should be noted that these, again, are all choices which must be made by the author. There is no magical idea of “my voice” “your voice.” The everyday decisions, the simplest ones we as humans make every day and take for granted, create Voice. Writers must make these every day decisions for each character in order to create the world of the story. Ideally, a career of making choices is what creates the Authorial Voice.

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