Understanding Voice

A lot of writers, especially newer ones, have a difficult time understand the idea of voice. It was a topic of discussion at a book signing this weekend, and a number of us who were there for the signing began talking about good examples of voice, and how we achieve it.

I view voice as one of those more esoteric qualities of writing – hard to teach, hard to explain, hard to create, but oh so important to a really good book.

I recently read “This is What I Did” by Ann Dee Ellis, and it is one of the best examples of voice that I’ve come across in quite some time.  I told Ann Dee that I was going to use it as an example. Here, the main character (Logan) is considering the pros and cons of joining the Boy Scouts after his dad has tried to talk him into it.

So I gave it a try.  I knew that there would be Bruce and Toby and Luke there, but I also knew that in Scouts you had to do a lot of stuff.

Like earn merit badges and go on campouts, which could be good and bad.

Good because maybe those guys would be distracted and not have time to harass me.

Good because maybe I would get to learn how to swim better and hike better and climb and things like that.

Good because Dad really wanted me to do it and I really wanted to  do it for him too sort of.

Bad because a campout meant more time for Bruce and Toby and Luke to do stuff to me or say stuff to me or do whatever they wanted.

Bad because I knew I wasn’t good at swimming and hiking and climbing and stuff like that.

Bad because if I couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it, Dad would think I was a loser again.

What Ellis does is she creates a literal voice for this boy.  She selects certain words (we call this “diction” in literary analysis), and then creates sentences unique to this boy and his way of thinking.  You don’t need any kind of background to understand what has just happened and how Logan feels about things.  He expresses his emotions in the way he analyzes the situation.  We sense his annoyance, his discomfort with the whole idea, and his desperate need for approval from his dad.  Never once to Ellis say “I wanted my dad’s approval so badly.”  She doesn’t have to because the voice is so authentic.

But what is it that makes the voice stand out?  Imagine it this way: if you were to tell this about yourself, you’d say it differently.  If a kid from the Bronx were to talk about it, it would certainly be different.  As a writer, the challenge is to hear what your character says and to say it for them – not the way you or someone else would tell it.

There in lies the challenge.  So many books sound exactly like  the author him- or herself. While this is a perfectly fine thing to do (in memoir or nonfiction), it typically is distracting in fiction, especially in young adult and middle grade fiction.  What kid wants to read a book that sounds just like Mom or Dad wrote it?

Voice requires knowing your character inside and out. Voice requires that you not write the story your way, but that you (the author) drop away and allow your brain and your body to be the conduit for these other people to speak.  It’s a bit like the psychic channeling the dead (watch “Ghost” for a great example).

Finding the true voice of a character can be one of the most frightening parts of writing because it requires that the writer surrender control of the writing and the story to an imaginary person of his or her own making.  That’s a bit like giving in to the little voices in your head when they tell you that peanut butter and pickle relish is a great food for 1:30 in the morning – and you’re not even expecting!

Another important aspect of voice is listening.  To truly capture how someone speaks, you have to SHUT UP!  Let others talk.  Listen to how a conversation really moves.  Develop an ear and an eye for the nuances in the way we communicate.  Slang varies from one part of the country to another – from one city to another.  There is a HUGE difference between a character who says “I leaped from my chair,” one who says, “I got up from my chair,” one who says “I bolted from my chair,” and one who says, “Bam! I flew outta the chair.”

There is nothing wrong with any one of those, but they each lean toward a different characterization.  The voice you use has to coincide with the qualities of the character in a believable way.

Dean Koontz, of whom I am a big fan, has a way of creating voices that makes you believe part of the story is being told by a dog.  However, in his book “One Door Away from Heaven” he creates the character of Leilani, an precocious 9-year-old, whose advanced language and understanding of the world is meant to be demonstrated through the character’s voice.  Instead, the girl sounds as if she is in her 40s or 50s, and her credibility is suspect, not because of what she says, but of how she says it. Leilani has told her neighbor that her father is guilty of murdering nearly a dozen people.

“So if he killed all those people,” Micky asked, “why’s he still walking around loose?”

“It’s a wonderment, isn’t it?” the girl said.

“More than a wonderment. It’s impossible.”

“Dr. Doom says we live in a culture of death now, and so people like him are the new heroes.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t explain the doctor,” Leilani said. “I just quote him.”

(skipping a few lines)

“You’re welcome here any time, Leilani, but he better stay on his side of the fence.”

“He will.  He doesn’t like people much, unless they’re dead.  He isn’t likely to chat you up across the backyard fence.  But if you do run into him, don’t call him Preston or Maddoc.  These days he looks a lot different, and he travels under the name Jordan – ‘call me Jorry’ – Banks.  If you use his real name, he’ll know I’ve ratted on him.”

The information is good, and the direction of the story is good, but what 9-year-old talks this way?   Even one who is well-educated and well-bred?  And this girl is neither of those. Wonderment? Chat you up across the fence? Not likely.

If Koontz could provide a reasonable explanation as to why she speaks this way, I’d go along with it.  Be he doesn’t, and the voice just sounds like an older woman packed into a little kid character.

Voice is one of those abstract concepts that is hard to provide exact direction on.  It’s easier to define by negation, telling you what it isn’t than what it is.  But what it really amounts to is that you have to trust the characters to speak their own truth IN THEIR OWN VOICES.  Forcing your voice, or overshadowing their voices with your own, will create a non-realistic element in your story and undermine your telling of it.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Voice

  1. Everybody says my voice is dang strange, like when I tried to explain how bluegrass speak is the exact polar opposite of Eskimo talk. Check me out on the first physician bluegrass fiction writer’s web log.
    -Dr. Bibey


  2. kwjwrites says:

    Dr. B.

    We call that “speaking in the venacular” – don’t we?

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