In the ongoing quest for improvement (school never really ends, does it?) I’ve been doing a deep dive into different aspects of writing fiction. Lately I’ve been fellowshipping with the concept of voice.
We hear it all the time… Voice is one of those things that really matters when it comes to a book succeeding (whether that’s getting an agent, getting an editor, getting published, getting good reviews, selling well, or—most important—getting love and recommendations from engaged readers).
In fact, “voicey” has become the publishing adjective of the year. Maybe of the decade.
(Followed by “pacey,” which we’ll talk about in a later post. Not to be confused with “plotty.”)
Voice… Before we can begin to talk about how to develop it or implement it or improve it, we need to consider something that seems to be occasionally misunderstood: what is it?
And this is where things can get confusing, because there are a couple different ways people talk about voice, and conflating these can really hurt reader engagement. (Which is ironic, as engagement is the primary goal of voice.)
These different aspects actually exist on a continuum, but for the moment let’s call them “authorial voice” and “character voice.” The first helps define who you (the writer) are, as a person. The second adds depth to who the character is, as a person.
In the starkest example, think of a nonfiction how-to book. (i.e. a book that has nothing in the way of characters, inner monolog, or dialog). This book is entirely in the author’s voice. If you’re the writer, you decide the tone(s) you want to set (formal and scholarly; casual and matter-of-factly; humorous and personable; etc.) and how far you may wish to range between them, then you get to work.
At the other end of the scale, think of a novel written in first person POV. Except for dialog from secondary characters and the like, the book is written entirely in the character’s voice. Not yours. (This is critical—we’ll revisit in a minute.)
An in-between case, of course, is third person POV. And even this is on a continuum, with ‘omniscient third’ being mostly the author’s voice, and ‘close third’ being in (or near) the character’s head at times. Overall, think of this as “narrative voice.”
A couple things to keep in mind…
When writing in third person (esp. close 3rd), we need to be aware of the difference between the narrative voice and the character’s voice. The latter comes to the front when we see/hear the character’s interior monolog, but also—not quite as obvious—when we’re looking at the world around them through their eyes, yet their views are being transported to us via the narration. It can be a nuanced balance, more distant than the constant “I, I, I” of in-the-head first person, yet clearly closer than 3rd omni or non-fiction narrative.
The other thing to keep in mind—and perhaps the main point here, as many of us working in fiction are working in 1st, especially those of us working in kidlit—has to do with writing from the direct point of view of someone who is not you. They may look like you… same age, gender, race, religion, etc. Or not. But regardless—if this is truly a work of fiction--they are not you.
So we should keep our voice out of their mouth.
By getting out of our own heads and into theirs.
What “voice” primarily means—when used by agents and editors discussing fiction—is the character’s voice, as evidenced in their interior monolog. And of course, if written in 1st person, virtually the entire book—minus any dialog—is interior monolog. (Or narrative description/exposition by the viewpoint character, which is close enough to interior monolog for these purposes.)
So the entire book is in “voice.” But not your voice. Your character’s voice.
Which means we need to really know them. To the point where we’ve internalized their personality, so we can wear it like a comfortable old sweater when we sit down to write. I’m going to suggest that if we have to think, “Hmm… what might someone like my character say in this situation, and how might they say it?” then maybe we don’t yet know them well enough to be writing in their voice.
Have you ever read something featuring a young character who seems to have the intellect/education/experience of a thirty-something college graduate? This can happen when we conflate our voice with our character’s voice. (I’ve had writers ask if they should add more metaphors, etc., to their fiction in an effort to have a more “writerly voice.” This is art, not science, so I hate to give yes or no answers to these things. Plus it's subjective as hell. But generally, in terms of reader engagement, I would say probably not. It would take us further from our character… and our readers. Which is exactly the opposite effect we generally wish to have with fiction.)
One good mitigation strategy here is to ask ourselves (and others who are conversant on the topic), “Is this the way a 13-year-old would talk?” And more important, “Is this the way a 13-year-old would think?” Not how we might want them to talk and think and act (because one of the very worst things we can do is write fiction that’s either prescriptive or proscriptive, telling kids what to think and do… or not think and do). But how they might really think and act. Then spend some quality time with your characters until you’ve absorbed their personalities to the point where you no longer have to ask the question.
Having said that, we’re not looking for some sort of “Jane/Joe Average 13-Year-Old” here. Your characters are probably different in some regard… maybe a lot different. (Which generally makes for a more compelling story, regardless.) But even a complete genius of a 13-year-old is still a 13-year-old, and doesn’t have the perspective of someone who’s been walking the planet for an additional 20 or 30 or 40 years.
So… we want to create characters who feel real to us… so real that we actually care about them, and what happens to them. (This, of course, is the big fat secret to getting readers—including agents and editors—to care about them. And connection to your characters may be the most important factor in getting a positive response from gatekeepers and readers, along with sentence-level craft.) For a deeper dive into caring about your characters, see this.
And finally, “voicey” (when used as a complimentary adjective by agents/editors) means having a character with an interesting, unique, accessible voice… readily identifiable and engaging in some way (humorous, snarky, poetic, wryly observant, geekily sincere, etc.) such that their voice itself adds significantly to the enjoyment of—and engagement with—the work. (In short: Is it fun to spend time in your character’s head?)
And—along with everything above—it should feel real. All this is not necessarily as simple as placing your inciting incident 37% of the way through Act 1, but perhaps more likely to grab—and hold—the attention of the person at the other end of your manuscript.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.