Character, Elizabeth Fais, Fiction, Kathleen Applegate, Meg Cabot, Rachel Hawkins, Rebel Belle, The One And Only Ivan, The Princess Diaries, Voice, Writing
At my first writing conference several years ago, editors and agents told the crowded room of enthusiastic writers that they were looking for “a unique voice”. I had no idea what that meant.
My response: “What the heck is that, and how to I get one?”
Luckily, I had enough sense not to say that out loud. Instead, I kept writing and going to conferences, and eventually I found my “voice”.
If you’ve been writing fiction for some time, you’ve most likely developed your unique voice. This post is for anyone in the early stages of their writing journey, and are too shy to ask, “what the heck is voice?”
What is “Voice” anyway?
Voice, quite simply, is character and personality.
Voice is the rhythm, tempo, and style that sparks with originality, and projects emotion and tone. Voice blends the personality of the writer with that of the characters in a story.
“What’s so hard about that?” I just have to be myself,” you might be thinking.
True. But in good fiction, characters, events, emotions, and voice need to be larger than life. Translating personality onto the page in a way that is authentic and brings characters to life, can an obscure path to navigate. Trust me on this.
I don’t know about you, but talking about concepts only takes me so far. I need examples to ground ideas in something practical. The following examples of voice are in the first person, so the personality (voice) is easier to ascertain. Third person and omniscient points of view also have distinctive voices, but we’ll save that for another time.
The Princess Diaries
The book series was as popular as the movies, because of the unique voice Meg Cabot brings to her characters. Mia may be a princess, but her voice is that of a quirky, insecure, and slightly irreverent teenager. If you haven’t read the series, it’s a must for character study and voice.
But a PRINCE? Of a whole COUNTRY? I mean, I knew Dad was in politics, and of course I knew he had money–how many kids at my school have summer homes in France? Martha’s Vineyard, maybe, but not France.
So what I want to know is, if my dad’s an actual prince, how come I have to learn Algebra? I mean, seriously.
The One and Only Ivan
Katherine Applegate uses the voice of Ivan to tell his heartfelt story. Ivan’s honest simplicity pulls us close and holds us there. Ivan is as believable (as a narrator) as his voice is unique.
It’s not as easy as it looks.
People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.
The names are mine. But they are not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.
Rachel Hawkins infuses Southern charm and etiquette in the voice of her characters, in this fun and quirky, kick-butt tale.
Now this is when it really gets weird. I know, I know, dead janitor in disguise, killer history teacher, how much weirder could it get?
Lots. Trust me.
When Dr. DuPont put that sword–well, scimitar–on my neck, I didn’t feel scared, like, at all. Instead, I felt that tingle in my chest again, only this time, it was more like this … energy. …
I didn’t knee him in the groin, although I didn’t rule that move out. Instead I … ugh, this is so embarrassing.
I head-butted him.
I know, like a soccer hooligan or something.
How do you find your voice?
You may be thinking, “Wow, those are great examples. But how do I find my voice?”
It’s a simple, but not quick. Don’t hate me:
Read. Read. Read, and read some more.
Read everything in your genre, then read authors in other genres. When you find an author whose style resonates with you, read everything they’ve ever written. Then read those books again. By reading and rereading their words, you absorb the rhythm and style of the prose. It’s learning through osmosis.
Voice isn’t a static thing, though. It’s a quality that evolves with the author, as they hone and polish their craft. That’s what’s so wonderful about writing. It’s not a static process. There’s always room for growth, for improvement.
Matthew Wright said:
Great post! And spot on about voice. Brought back a recollection of mine – years ago, I went to a book launch where the author conducted readings from her novel, each representing the contrasting voice of a different narrator. All was punctuated by a small band largely equipped with bongo drums, whose sound filled the little bookshop in which all this was taking place. The author’s ability to control ‘voice’ was manifest, but I wasn’t sure about the bongo drummers’ equivalent musical talents…
Elizabeth Fais said:
Bongo drums at a reading? Ha! Maybe not effective, but definitely memorable. 🙂
Different voices that distinguish various characters, or narrators, takes an author’s skills to a whole different level. I thought about the non-fiction writer while doing this post. The ability to keep your voice out of the spotlight takes as much skill as developing a strong fictional voice.
Linda Maye Adams said:
One of the other ways to find a character’s voice is to open with the character and the setting. You start getting the character’s opinion about the setting and you get voice really fast.
Elizabeth Fais said:
Great point, Linda! This approach works especially well when the setting acts as character in itself throughout the story.
Sherry Isaac said:
I don’t remember developing my voice but rather, finding out quite by surprise that I had one. Here’s how:
I’d been going to creative writing classes for years. Once day I went to a regular evening class ready to receive feedback on my latest submission. Comments went round the table as was our practice, this time most leaned toward emotional impact of the piece I’d submitted. Then came my instructor’s turn.
He said: “Your voice is becoming quite powerful.”
I’m not sure how my voice evolved, but it is a process, not an event, and I know oodles of both reading and writing and studying craft were involved. How do I know this? As same wise instructor Brian Henry once told me, “Your first million words are never very good”. Time has shown me he is absolutely right.
I’m sure my voice is still developing and refining, and will do so until the day I set down my pen for good.
Elizabeth Fais said:
You are spot on about how important “writing” is in developing voice, Sherry. I rewrote my first novel twice, and was deep in a rewrite of my second novel before I discovered my voice. I link that Ah-ha moment to reading a particular author. Her writing style resonated with me. But if I hadn’t done all the writing leading up to that moment, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had that experience. I love your voice, Sherry. I hope you keep writing for a very long time.
Part of the challenge, too, is finding the right voice for different characters. Especially when you’re changing between points of view, you want to make sure the hero’s voice is distinguishable from the heroine’s for more reasons than the little prompt at the beginning of the section. And reading is key for that. Nice post!
Elizabeth Fais said:
Creating strong voices for multiple characters in the same story is a daunting task, but one you do well, Liv. Reading authors who have mastered a specific aspect of craft helps me to translate that skill into my writing. I’m still writing in first person, because YA fiction lends itself to that view point so well. One day I’ll graduate to multiple voices and view points. One day. 🙂
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