In writing, voice happens at three levels: the author, the narrator, and the characters each have their own voices. While many editors and readers openly state they are hooked and reeled into a story by a strong voice, many writers struggle to understand let alone implement voice. Despite voice often being regarded as elusive, and even magical, voice can be understood and honed just like any other element of storytelling.
Hello everyone, September C. Fawkes here, and I’m going to be covering the writing tip this week, which is all about understanding voice. By the end, you’ll see it isn’t quite as tricky to utilize as many often think, and you’ll have some insight to help strengthen voice in your own stories. Then they, too, may have that extra magic to hook and reel in audiences.
What is Voice, Really?
First, let’s talk about what voice is. Recently I was a guest on The Rebel Author Podcast, and Author Sacha Black pointed out that voice is essentially that person’s personality, as it shows up on the page. In my opinion, when broken down, voice is made up of two things:
What the Person Thinks or Talks About + How They Say It = Voice
This is the equation I like to use when it comes to understanding voice, and it works at any level.
What the Writer Thinks or Talks about + How She Says It = Author Voice
What the Narrator Thinks or Talks about + How He Says It = Narrator Voice
What the Character Thinks or Talks about + How He Says It = Character Voice
Look at the two ingredients of voice. One is about content and the other is about how it’s communicated. Voice is made up of both, not just the content and not just the way it’s communicated.
Together, this is generally how the writer’s, narrator’s, and/or character’s personality gets on the page.
How The 3 Levels of Voice Work Together
But September, you lament, how do all these voices work together at the same time? (Or maybe you don’t lament, in any case, I’ll be happy to answer 😉 )
It’s sorta like a Russian nesting doll.
The biggest doll is the author’s voice–because every story the writer writes helps make up that voice.
Inside of that is the narrator’s voice–this is the voice of the narrator of a particular story.
Inside of that is the character’s voice–and you may even break this down further, into the viewpoint character’s voice and then into any nonviewpoint characters’ voices (which is often coming through the viewpoint character’s perspective, obviously). . . . Or not, it just depends how you want to slice and dice it.
That’s the gist of it, but for a more detailed breakdown and explanation, check out, “Author Voice vs. Narrator Voice vs. Character Voice.”
Of the three, I think character voice is the easiest to spot and understand, so let’s focus in on that one.
Character Voice and The Voice Equation
Almost every character should have their own voice—their distinctive way of communicating their worldview (because, after all, every character has his or her own personality).
To illustrate, here are three lines from Harry Potter that reveal Hermione’s, Ron’s, and Harry’s individual voices, respectively.
“Don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you…”
“Can I have a look at Uranus too, Lavender?”
“I don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me.”
Because Hermione believes in following rules, she regularly tells Ron and Harry to do likewise, and she’s often very logical about it. Ron, however, tends to be a little coarser than the other two and usually says comical one-liners. Finally, Harry, who is always associated with trouble, often has to defend and explain himself.
Three distinct characters. Three distinct voices.
Let’s go through the equation in regard to character voice.
What Your Character Talks About
What someone chooses to talk about (and arguably not talk about) reveals character. It reveals worldview, personality, and priorities. For this reason, it’s often helpful to work from the inside out. Knowing your character’s wants, needs, flaws, fears, and layers, will make crafting their voice easier. With that said, it’s also okay to work from the outside in, especially for side characters. You may craft a pleasing voice that then indicates who the character is.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits often talk about food. They eat a lot more than other characters so food is a higher priority for them. Because they bring up food a lot, we know it’s what they are thinking about a lot. They don’t casually strike up conversations about advanced battle tactics; they don’t have a war-based background. And any conversation they do have about battle tactics wouldn’t be on the same level as a warrior.
So, their culture, interests, and experiences influence their voices. And because they come from similar places, they talk about similar things. However, each Hobbit still has his own voice (because each Hobbit has his own personality). While Pippin would ask about second breakfast without a second thought, Frodo wouldn’t say anything.
If your character is a nutritionist, she might look at her lunch and talk about complex carbs, protein, calories, and vitamins. A fashionista might notice that her best friend is wearing this season’s color. A dentist might see people’s teeth first. Consider your character, what does she think and talk about?
How Your Character Talks
Just as the character’s background and personality influence what she talks about, they also influence how she talks. Education, age, and social circles will factor in as well. You will want to consider word choice and speech patterns, and when appropriate, slang and dialect. The character’s dominating emotions can also play into their voice’s tone.
Listen to how Samwise Gamgee talks:
“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo . . . Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. . . . . Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going.”
Notice words like “Mr. Frodo,” and “folk,” help establish Sam’s voice. Pretend, instead, Gandalf said this. The word choices and speech patterns would be different. Instead of “lots of chances” he might say “many opportunities.” He might pause in different places and use different sentence structures. He’s far more educated and experienced than Sam, so he’d say those same thoughts in a different way.
Then think how Gollum would say those thoughts. . . oh, wait, he wouldn’t say those thoughts. Gollum doesn’t think like that. That’s voice too.
Consider the following example: an old friend shows up at an event the protagonist is hosting.
Notice how these different responses communicate different voices.
“Jason, thanks for coming. I know you’re really busy. How’s your son doing?”
“It’s about time you showed up to one of these things,” she teased.
“I didn’t think you cared about these events.”
“You finally came!” She gasped, ” . . .Looking like that?”
“You finally came and you look like that.”
“Did your mother guilt you into coming?”
“What the heck?”
“Jason, I’m flattered you came.”
“Jason,” she said. “You came. I’m flattered.”
Look at the last two examples. Same words, different delivery. Putting the dialogue tag after “Jason,” adds a pause to the character’s speech, which can communicate shock over Jason himself. Whereas, the former version sounds more relaxed.
Applying The Voice Equation to the Author and Narrator
These same concepts apply to you, the author. You are a unique person. You have unique experiences, a unique personality, a unique worldview, a unique belief system. There are particular types of stories you like to write, and some you would never write. There are sentence structures you like using more than others. Maybe you are prone to choosing metaphors that come from nature. Perhaps you never use profanity. Unlike the other layers of voice, your author voice isn’t so much something you “create” as something you are. However, this isn’t an excuse for poor writing. You have an author voice, but you still have to refine how to communicate it, and that comes from study, practice, and experience. To learn more about the author’s voice, check out “Defining and Developing Your Author Voice.”
This same equation applies to the narrator. And often these days, the narrator is the viewpoint character, so you’ll need to write the narration, more or less, from that character’s perspective. Nonetheless, it is possible to narrate from a different perspective, or even a fully omniscient perspective.
Now go forth and write with voice.
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years, with nearly seven of those years under David Farland. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. She also runs an award-winning writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com and serves as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers. When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.
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