What is Voice? (Also: how to have it and why it matters.)

Someone recently pointed out that the Google results for a search on ‘voice’ yield ambiguous and contradictory results. Not to mention a whole category of stuff that just has me going ‘wtf’. With the single exception of this wonderful blog post from All Write – Fiction Advice, which honestly you could just read instead.

And yeah, I know this stuff is subjective. The thing is, though, I can define my terms and back them up. You may call it something different, but for me, voice is the single required element for a story to be interesting and original. Everything else helps, but without voice, you will just not hold my attention.

game of thrones joffrey clapping

Okay, so the million-dollar question: what is voice?

Voice is the ‘personality’ of the book.

Third person omniscient narrators have voice, too.

Oh my gods, that’s not useful at all, is it? Let me do this with an example. Imagine a passage about a person peeing on a statue of Jesus. From the perspective of a devout, militant atheist, the person peeing will be praised and the Jesus figurine will be painted in a ridiculous light. A Christian might praise Jesus for loving this person despite his stupidity. (None of this has to be direct. It’s a matter of word choice.)

And yes, I went with something people get emotional about on purpose.

1. George whipped it out and released a lovely yellow stream on the glassy-eyed face opposite him. Jesus had his hands up and his mouth open, and before long he was all decked out, his gown like lemon meringue pie. As the steam blew off his face, George noted he was smiling like he enjoyed it.

2. George struggled to get his zipper open and started urinating right away, unable to hold it back. Jesus met the water with outstretched arms, his forgiving smile unchanged as the steam rose heavenward. George could sense the benevolence.

Please note that neither case mentions what George’s intentions were–this is relevant.

What makes two voices different?

Intention and perspective. Even third-person omniscient isn’t just some objective, disinterested narration of events (why do you think textbooks are so boring?), it’s a person with some kind of personality telling a story. As far as nonfiction goes, you do see this in historical works because the author always has a thesis (aka ‘opinion’) they’re trying to further. For instance, I’m reading a book where the author is arguing that double-entry bookkeeping defined the modern world, so stuff is going to be biased in favor of making double-entry bookkeeping look good, the way #2 above will do its best to make Jesus look good in a bad situation.

Okay, but how do I actually make this happen?

  • Style. I consider style to be the use of grammatical conventions–stuff like fragments, run-ons, even details like dash use (especially in a historical context). The result tends to convey the speaker’s background or state of mind. Action scenes will be more agitated, so short sentences instead of longer, complex ones; a strict adherence to the formal rules of grammar from a Victorian-age schoolmarm.
  • Word choice. If the examples above aren’t clear, you can ask for details. But, dude, people have opinions not just based on what they’ve learned but how they’ve grown up. A scientist is more likely to say ‘I think’ and a devout person is more likely to say ‘I believe’–it can be that simple. (Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the former never uses the word ‘belief’ and the latter never thinks.)
  • Information. What does the narrator want to tell the readers? Why?
  • Subjectivity. The above are how you get the ideas across to the reader, but how do you get there yourself? By sinking into the skin of whomever you’re writing as. To me, this doesn’t mean imagining a character standing right in front of you yelling stuff (I don’t do imagination), it’s more of an asking myself ‘how would a person of this demographic information with these biases describe this event?’

That’s all I have for today. Would something on ‘finding your voice’ be useful?


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