Thursday, August 8, 2013

Writing the Voice

Voice is something everyone's looking for, but that everyone's struggling to define. Many people insist that they should find their author's voice before they start writing. Mmm... maybe. If you're writing about themselves or non-fiction. 

To me, though, Voice is a given story's tone and mood. It's responsible for the way a story feels. I believe that if the story's fiction, this feel should be determined by its characters. Not the author. The author shouldn't be seen at all. 

Instead, the Voice lets the reader gain insight into the character. Because writing he/she/it is a bit tedious when done repeatedly, I'm calling today's character Tom. 

Now. To nail Tom's voice, we'd need to look at his likes and dislikes. We need to take into account what excites him. What bores him? What sort of person is he like? Straight and to the point? Or is he poetic? You can ask a million questions about this guy's personality and about a million of them will have relevance to his Voice. 

Think I'm kidding? Watch this. 

This is me the author. 

Tom saw a pretty girl at the bar. She sat alone, drinking a cocktail. The barman kept glancing her way. 

This is from the point of view of Tom, the slightly arrogant, but not unlikable (at least not to me) alpha-male. 

Today, a lone babe occupied his usual seat. Not that he minded. It would give him a fun night buying her more of those pink drinks she drank. Maybe it would lead to a pay-off, maybe not. In the meantime, he sauntered over to her side and ordered a straight bourbon, sending a too-bad look to the barman, who'd been eyeing her too. 

Now. To Tom, the shy, thoughtful, sensitive guy with a confidence problem. 

Simply put, the woman sitting two bar stools down was... well... stunning. A touch of elegance completely out of place in this tacky pub. She sat with her posture gracefully straight, sending coy little smiles to the barman, who obviously enjoyed the attention. Lucky guy. He'd probably get her number while Tom spent the rest of the night wishing he had the guts to introduce himself. 

Same scenario. Same author. Two very different characters. What part of those paragraphs made up the voice? 

To me, everything. 

Tom1 has a more direct approach. Shorter sentences. Often shorter words as well. Also, it's clear what his aim is. And the moment he's next to the girl, he stakes his claim.

Tom2 has longer sentences. He spends more time thinking about something than Tom1. He also keeps his distance, regretting his choice to do so. 

All of those factors add up to the two Toms' voices. Because all of them add up to what we'd use to tell the two of them apart. The sounds of their narrative voices, as it were. 

I'm not saying you need to nitpick every single word you draft, trying to make every sentence conform. What I am saying is that you'll need to get to know your character. Not only the stuff you thought you knew. Use your rough draft to find out everything the character shows you. And then when you edit, make sure that everything he thinks, says and does fits with how he or she sounds in your head. 

Yep, the concept really is as simple as that. 

Best of luck with the application! 

If you want to practice, though, write the example sentences I wrote from the PoV of Tom, the nice guy who's wondering if he should make a move. Feel free to leave in the comments. 

Anyone else have tips on nailing the Voice? 


  1. Hi Misha!

    Thanks for commenting on my IWSG post :) It was great to "see" you! This is wonderful advice and, frankly, it sends a bit of relief through me. So many times you hear the term "Voice" and immediately think, "Oh GOSH, now I have to figure out HOW I'm going to sound on paper!" This makes much more sense. True, we as writers do develop a voice of our own, that subtle "something" that lets a reader know the author before reading their name or, perhaps, that gives them the comfort that familiarity brings. But really, voice is about the character. Story is about the character. We as writers are just here to get their story into the world!

    Oh, best of luck with your new goal! I love how you state them at the top of your blog :) It's exciting to watch them change and grow!


  2. Excellent visual aid for illustrating voice. I think that many times we go in knowing our main character's voice fairly well. It's the Voices of everyone else that get tricky... or maybe muddy is the better word. Using exercises like this one should help to clear them up:)

  3. Voice is one of those things we hear branded about and yet it is often hard to define. Some good examples here, thank you :)

  4. Misha, I agree with you on the definition of voice.
    It has more to do with the story (characters, plot, etc) than anything else.

  5. If you are enthusiastic about what your are writing, it excites you, and you have the basic writing skills, then your voice arrives without having to pay much attention to it, Misha.

  6. Just write and the voice will come. That's what someone told me a long time ago.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  7. I really like your examples of the two different versions of Tom; I think they said a lot about the character. I think that when authors use voice correctly, it makes the story a lot more interesting. Sometimes it feels like certain authors are trying to speak for the characters, which may explain why some of them include pages and pages of description and backstory for every single character that shows up. I like your version better, because it's more concise and it still gives me a lot of info about the character.

  8. I've heard of writers filling notebooks of background information about their characters, most of which they'll never use. I've heard of some conducting "interviews" with their characters-- asking them about their childhood, favorite food, most embarrassing moments, just to get to know them better, and yes, create their unique voice. Great post.

  9. Wonderful examples. I let the whole 'one author voice' thing go a long time ago. At one point I worried about 'finding my voice' but the more I wrote, I just focused on my books and now I'm fine. I love how you dissected Tom's two distinct characteristics.

  10. Misha, I loved your two examples. Initially I was clueless regarding voice, but now I am pretty clear on that front.


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