Establishing a Voice, Or, How to Write Gooder

I’ve talked a lot about world-building and plotting and creating a good story; the architecture of novels, as it were. So I thought this time I’d explore something that has more to do with the details of word choice and style (the materials one uses to build a novel, I guess? my metaphor’s kind of falling apart, but anyway): the voice.

Voice is one of those details of writing that’s essential to get right, yet very difficult to define. Let’s get the dictionary definition out of the way first: “an author’s individual writing style or point of view.” Okay. What affects the writing style? Dialect, which is an indicator of class or education as well as region of origin. Casual versus formal speech, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation. Attitude, or tone, which can range from sympathetic to disgusted to ironic, amused, unaffected and on from there. All of these categories can influence the language at every level, from the pronunciation and the semantics to the sentence structure, to entire conversations or paragraph-long descriptions. It’s pretty much all-encompassing.

Add to that, you’re not only dealing with the voice of the narrator. You need to craft individual voices for each character, at least the principle ones. Even if you have a first-person narrator, they’ll probably still have a somewhat different voice for their actual utterances versus their silent observations and internal monologue. Yes, it can be overwhelming at times, and I’m far from claiming that I’ve achieved perfect success myself. I’m working on it. If all my characters sound the same, if there’s nothing particularly unique or engaging about my authorial voice, it’s going to make my novels a lot harder to read.

Let’s go with some concrete examples instead of continuing to wade through murky abstractions. We’ll start with some non-fiction stuff. If I’m writing a query letter to a literary agent, I want my voice to be professional, respectful but confident. I’ll use phrases like “I am seeking representation for my novel” and “thank you for your time and consideration.” I could say roughly the same thing with “I want you to be my agent” and “thanks a bunch” but those sound respectively desperate and flippant. If, on the other hand, I were writing an email to a close friend, I could be far more casual. It would be rather odd to have such a message with “As we are both in agreement regarding the issue of meeting for lunch, I respectfully request your presence at the café at 12 pm.” You can assume a far easier tone within that context. “Lunch at the café at noon?” Context is paramount.

Now for fiction. I’ve come to recognize what my natural voice is, for the most part, when I’m not deliberately trying to write a particular way. It tends to be wordy, with complex sentences that probably go a little overlong unless I restrain myself. Not the height of formality, but definitely more toward that end of the spectrum than toward the casual. This is, no doubt, because I read a lot and love to assimilate new vocabulary into my regular usage, and I tend toward the bombastic. (Not quite so much when I have to speak aloud extemporaneously, but according to my friends, I still use too many big words. Sorry. I’m proving my point right now.) When I’m working on my novels, I have to rein myself in. Not totally. If I tried to quash my natural voice entirely, whatever I wrote would end up sounding lifeless or artificial. I have to allow myself into my writing to some degree. I just have to be more deliberate about the words that end up on the page.

Each of my books unquestionably has my voice, but hopefully with some variation depending on the context. And I’ve done my best to give each important character their own voice. When I wrote Other I wanted to evoke a slightly skewed fairy tale with the introduction, and so I began:

“Alain was the youngest of Robert Ferrauld’s three sons, and the least likely to amount to anything.”

It’s probably the opening sentence I’ve re-written more than any other, and I’m still not fully satisfied with it. But here’s what I do like: it’s a little bit like the classic Once upon a Time, but with a note of irony. We all know the third son is the one who usually has everything happen to him in stories like these, but the narrator doesn’t know that.

I set it in a pseudo-Regency era, so I gave everyone’s speech a slightly archaic bent (unconsciously inspired by Jane Austen, perhaps?). And then I tried to color each individual with their own particular voice. Alain’s brother Nicolaus is rather prissy and focused on having the right appearance, which I tried to reflect in his speech by his saying things like “those of the feminine sort” rather than just “women.” When the creature comes along, she has a very cynical, sarcastic view of things that makes her language rougher, less refined, sometimes plain nasty. “Go on reading books and feeling sorry for yourself” and “For someone who fancies himself a scholar, you don’t know anything at all.” My hope is that if you pulled a quote from the book and read it without context, most of the time you’d be able to tell which character was talking.

I used a similar voice for my other fairy tale re-tellings, though a little less Jane Austen-y, while my science fiction novels required something more analytical as well as modern. But perhaps my biggest challenge, voice-wise, came with Mortal Failings. Thus far it’s my only novel with a contemporary setting (albeit with supernatural elements) and I had to adjust the voice accordingly. I’m quite aware that I don’t really talk, myself, like a typical youngish American. Certainly not like a teenager. But I knew the book had to be written with a teenage voice, with a first-person narration no less. Even harder, I would have to channel the feelings of a girl who falls hard and fast for a mysterious guy – something I’ve never done and never wanted to do. Knowing how dysfunctional and controlling Erik actually is, I had to suppress my disgust and write un-ironic descriptions of his wonderfulness and Cami’s infatuation with him. “Knowing he’d be near, never mind protecting me, was enough to carry me back home, though it was wrenching to leave his presence.” Blech. But I have to say that restraining myself throughout the first half of the book made it all the more satisfying to have Cami’s tone gradually shift into horror as she realizes what their relationship has really been doing to her. The opening, since it’s sort of an after-the-fact prologue, swings dramatically from one voice to the other:

“The first time I saw Erik, I knew we were destined to be together forever.

The last time I saw him, I shot a bullet through his temple. I’m still not sure if he’s dead. That’s the trouble with demi-mortals. You can never guess how many times they’ll come back to life.”

I did my best to make her friends sound like, well, not an over-loquacious thirty-three-year-old. “Holy crap, is that him? I don’t blame you for drooling over him, Cami.” Still not sure about that voice, but at least I know it’s in stark contrast to Erik, who speaks like he’s from another era, as well as using excessively sappy, melodramatic language: “I can’t tell you how it tortured me, all through that long week while you ignored me. When you thought I was crazy.” Yikes. I also had Cami’s voice become more and more elevated the longer she’s around Erik, as if she’s unconsciously picking up on his speech patterns, letting her own personality get swallowed up in his.

It was a significant stretch for me, voice-wise, and I’m glad for it. I’ve always been a little doubtful about finding an audience for Mortal Failings, since it subverts the paranormal romance story rather viciously, but if nothing else it was a fantastic exercise in writing a voice that doesn’t come naturally. Stretching yourself is essential to improving your talent. Fan fiction, incidentally, is an excellent venue for practicing that, since you already have someone else establishing the voice. If you can learn to imitate that voice convincingly, whether the author’s or the character’s, then you can put those skills to use in the creation of your own varying narrator and character voices. And you can avoid the mistake of accidentally switching voices mid-story, ’cause that kinda writing, it really stinks, ya know what I mean?

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