Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Voice - Why You No Easy?

What I'm Reading: The Future is Japanese - Haikasoru
What I'm Listening to: Danse Macabre, Op. 40 - Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Brushing up on my Japanese too.
This is the kanji for "voice." 
Voice has been the main focus in my revisions, so I've been revisiting my How-To-Write books, and I've decided to post what I've learned/reread.

To start with, what is voice? Quite simply, it is the writing style expressed by the character's speech and thoughts.

Authors can assume multiple personalities in their writing. Whether they're a raging hick, a ghetto thug, a schizophrenic adolescent, or a feisty dragon, the voice of the character must be distinct enough for the reader to make a connection. Otherwise, the story feels like it's being narrated with the author's voice, which is undesirable.

Voice tends to be very clear when the story is told in first person. You're right in the character's head, rather than floating above him/her watching their every move. In third person, however, it gets a little more tricky because the author is the narrator, but not entirely in their own voice. I like how Jerome Stern puts it in his book Making Shapely Fiction: "Your reader hears your character's voice through you, and simultaneously hears you through your character."

There's also a thing called psychic distance in third person. John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction defines it as "the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story." His examples:
1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms. 
We feel much closer to number four than we do to number one. So much so that we don't even learn his name. Personally, I like the fourth one the best. It's more engaging and you get a clear sense of voice.

Voice is an easy concept to understand, but it's not always the easiest to actually pull off. A strong voice is one of the things my novel is lacking the most. I have six points of view, therefore six different voices which I need to make unique. I have to pick the right vocabulary, pick the right level of formality, pick the right sentence structure, establish their speech rhythms, and their degree of awareness--are they kind of out of it, or do they pay a ton of attention to detail? I need to describe things how they would describe it with their own eyes, not with my own. One of my main characters is a bad-mouthed tomboy. Out of all my characters, she is the most informal. And yet, when I write her scenes, her thoughts and speech patterns come off as super formal. I have no idea why I do this, so I have to pay closer attention to her scenes than I do with the others.

Voice must be consistent. Otherwise, it's not convincing. Unless, however, the character goes through a change as the book progresses. My characters are thrust into a different world. After a while, their surroundings begin to rub off on them. Here and there I'll slip in a formal sentence. But, for the most part, I try to keep it consistent.

A few basic suggestions:

Create a playlist. I created a playlist for each of my characters who were from Earth. When I listen to it, I think solely of that particular character. How they react to things, how they describe things, what they would be doing while listening to each particular song. I haven't yet, but I plan to go through the book, focusing on one character at at time, and rewrite all of their scenes while listening to the music I picked out for them.

Read books that have voices similar to yours. For my characters who aren't from earth, I usually like to read R.A. Salvatore's books right before I write or revise their scenes. I like his style and I feel like it helps me with their medieval fantasy-like voices.

Read out loud. Where does the voice go flat or lose rhythm? What seems out of character? Ask yourself, would he/she actually say that? If you don't think so, or you think they might say it but aren't sure, then reword it or ditch it entirely. You don't want the reader questioning whether or not the character would actually say such a thing.

Get some distance. Step away from your work for a week or more. Then come back to it. With fresh eyes, you'll notice the inconsistencies. This works the best for me.

Find someone to read your work. I've known my characters from their birth. So everything they do makes sense to me. But not always to other people. Find someone you can trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Have them get to know your characters and point out when things don't seem right. Most of the flaws in my novels have been brought to my attention by readers. As hard as it is to share my work, I know I can't  catch everything by myself.

How difficult is voice for you? Have you run into any problems with it? Do you have any more tips on how to make voice more vivid? 


  1. When it comes to a character's dialogue, I think I'm fairly good at making their voices distinct. I suspect it has something to do with me having played so many fighting games; those characters are often extremely colorful and diverse, and I feel compelled to differentiate between my casts in any way I can. (It certainly helps that I've got a file in my documents detailing what characters would say if they won a match in a fighting game...because hey, why not?)

    With all that said, I think I still need to work on the narrative voice. You know, the words between all the speaking; I do all right when it comes to describing things, but I still feel like there's a gap between where I am and where I want to be. Guess I'll have to figure it out as I edit.

    1. I'll agree that dialogue is much easier to write than all the narrative stuff, but I think I rely too much on it. Sometimes my story looks like a play rather than a novel.

      That's pretty cool about your fighting games. It never occurred to me that video games could help with writing. I don't play often anymore since I focus more on reading and writing. Maybe I should start and use writing as an excuse. ^.^