On Friday of this week we’ll be having another guest blogger. Our friend Edmund Schubert who is not only a writer of both short stories and novels, but is also managing editor at a magazine called Diversity Woman and the fiction editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, an online sf/fantasy ‘zine. Ed is one of my favorite people and I’m sure you’ll enjoy his post, so be sure to check it out.
Ed was at ConCarolinas a couple of weeks ago with Misty, Faith, and me, and during one of our many panels he asked a question about “voice”, a difficult concept for beginning writers, and one I’d like to write about a bit today.
When we talk about voice, we are referring to the way a book or story reads. It’s a rather amorphous concept that takes into account tone, style, character, and a host of other elements of writing. If you look up the word “voice” in the dictionary, you won’t find any reference to this among its several definitions. It’s one of the those terms that is used by those of us in the field, sometimes in different ways by different people. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a difficult concept for beginning writers to grasp; many of us who aren’t beginners are still trying to grasp it ourselves.
For my part, I like to think about voice at a number of levels. There’s a basic level that I refer to as stylistic voice. When we read high fantasy we generally expect it to sound a certain way. We expect the descriptions to be somewhat rich, the language to be less colloquial, more formal. On the other hand, if we read contemporary urban fantasy, we expect the opposite. The style will usually be more clipped, succinct; there might be less emphasis on description and more on action. Military SF might be different from both of these. Whatever. Point is, this is what I mean by stylistic voice.
Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules. One can write highly descriptive urban fantasy or high fantasy in a clipped style. The point is, this is a conscious decision that we make as writers; a stylistic decision. And in making that decision, we are starting to establish the voice of our work.
For me, the second level of voice is established by my worldbuilding. And this I call ambient voice. When I begin my worldbuilding, I don’t just come up with maps and place names, histories and religions, I also come up with a tone for the world I’m creating. In my LonTobyn books, Tobyn-Ser had a very pastoral feel — again, lots of description, and a feel almost like that of the Shire (at least that’s what I was striving for). Lon-Ser, on the other hand, was modern, technologically advanced, and violent. The way I wrote in that world reflected those qualities. The Forelands weren’t modern, but there was a darkness to them, a forbidding, uncompromising quality. With all of these places, I tried to match my use of metaphor and simile to the quality of the place. In other words, I tried to establish a voice that would reflect those elements of the worldbuilding in the way my characters saw their worlds, felt about other people, and expressed their emotions. The darkness of the Forelands would have seemed out of place in Tobyn-Ser. The modern interactions of Lon-Ser would have been totally anachronistic in the Forelands. I believe that worldbuilding has to be reinforced in my prose, in my imagery. That is ambient voice.
And finally, there is character voice, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. I want all of my characters to sound unique. When I begin writing a chapter or section from a different character’s point of view, I want my readers to sense that they are inside the mind of someone recognizably different from the last character whose mind they were in, and also from the next. Ideally, I’d like my readers to know whose mind they’re in before I tell them. That may be asking a lot, of them and of myself, but at least I want there to be variety in the tone of my different point of view characters. That helps to make each character come to life for the reader. If they all sound the same and look at the world the same way, I’ve failed to make them individuals.
Stylistic voice, ambient voice, character voice. As with so many things (see my post from last Monday) this is my own way of thinking about voice. It might not work for you. And that’s fine. But you should at least be thinking about the issues that I’ve raised here. The way you write about your world should set a mood for your book. Your characters should see the world and experience the events you describe in your narrative in ways that match their personalities and motivations. That’s voice, and whether you like my categories or not, it is something you should consider as you write your story or book.