The enigmatic voice falls outside the normal boundaries of writing. Many writers struggle with voice, myself included, but there’s ways to work on your writing to make it more personal, because ultimately, voice comes down to personality. Singing and writing depend on voice. Both impart a sense of personality to the final work, whether that’s a song or a story. The 90s band the Offspring would likely never have found the success they did if it weren’t for frontman Dexter Holland’s gregarious singing voice, and Louis Armstrong’s voice makes the classic song It’s a Wonderful Life. Similarly, Flowers for Algernon and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are books that shine because of the distinct, powerful voices of the narrators.
Some critics and readers talk about a writer’s voice, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Voice shouldn’t belong to the writer. Voice belongs to the characters. Unless your writing is purely autobiographical, the voice in your story should capture the identity of your character, not you, the author. Here’s an example from Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon:
“I had a test today. I think I faled it. and I think that maybe now they wont use me. What happind is a nice young man was in the room and he had some 19 white cards with ink spillled all over them. He sed Charlie what do you see ton this card. I was very skared even tho I had my rabits foot in my pockit because when I was a kid I always faled tests in school and I spillled ink to.”
This is the second paragraph of this classic novel and it reveals so much about the narrator. We know the narrator, Charlie, isn’t very intelligent and he’s undergoing some kind of test. Another example from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
This is the first paragraph of the novel and vividly establishes the narrator’s character. Mary Katherine’s voice is distinct, weird, and tragic, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the book.
Voice does more than simply establish character, though, it changes the entire tone of the prose. How different would prose describing a grocery store be from each of these characters? Voice can weave character inseparably into the prose, so every description works on two levels; we see a painting of the exterior world, but we also gain insight into the character’s mind.
Success writing a story with strong voice comes from knowing your character. The descriptions of the world, other characters, and action, should all come from the lips and mind of your narrator. In some ways, writing with voice is like method acting. You need to climb inside your character’s skull and describe things the way they would.
What are your thoughts on voice? How do you find a character’s voice? Drop in the comments and let me know. Follow for more writing thoughts from a daily discovery writer. More writing tips and tricks here.
Picture belongs to Azzah B.A.