Authenticity of Voice

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Authenticity of voice is all-important.  Without that, you can have the greatest tale ever told and no one will read it, because they won’t be convinced and invested.  I’ve read quite a few submissions recently where the author was telling the story the way he or she felt it needed to be told without regard to what would actually have been relevant to the viewpoint character in that place and time.  For instance, I don’t care how distracting the girl in the motor pool might be (especially if she’s not even on shift at the time), if your hero has just witnessed the crash-landing of an alien spacecraft, the thing he’s spent his career anticipating, he’s not thinking about the color of her eyes. 

This is all to say that you have to reach the point where you hear your viewpoint character’s voice more clearly than your own.  When people talk about voice, it’s not really the writer’s voice they’re considering—though like actors, it’s likely an author’s style will have certain quirks apparent across the scope of their fiction—it’s about the voices of the characters, all of which should be distinct.  Here’s where I get my geek on.  Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons, starting at about age eleven, our dungeon master (the person who controls the game…the puppet master of your world) would have us write up bios for our characters so that we could come to know them and play true to their natures.  It was the only way to get caught up in the adventure and lose ourselves in the fantasy. 

The same holds true for writing.  It’s not enough to decide on certain characteristics for your hero.  For example: stubborn, chivalrous, brave.  Or quirks, like an addiction to girly coffee drinks for which he’s teased.  Those are important to know about your character, of course, and I discussed them in a previous blog post on voice, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg.  Why is the hero the way he is?  What has he overcome that has made him stronger, what does he still have unresolved that might become an Achilles’ heel?  Where is he from regionally or chronologically that will affect his speech and idioms and thought patterns?  You need to KNOW.  If you’re writing a historical, it’s important to do primary source research—journals and other material written during that time.  If you’re writing a contemporary teen, make sure you spend enough time around them to know how they talk and write and communicate.

Immerse yourself until you know what your character as well as you know yourself, maybe better.  Then let him tell the story…or her.  There will be times when you’ll need to steer, of course, or decide one part of their tale doesn’t need to be told, at least not “on screen,” but once you’ve plotted and prepared, it ceases to be your story and becomes theirs.

Now trust me, I know how difficult it can be to tune out all the voices around you, particularly over the summer when you’re trying to get into the mindset of a teenaged girl who’s going through severe emotional upheaval, but you’re home with a son who wants to show you fun YouTube videos and a puppy who insists on being walked at the most inconvenient times.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to go back to waking at 5 a.m. again so that I can have the solitude I need to write, but we all do what we must. 

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12 comments to Authenticity of Voice

  • Lucienne,
    my first agent (and your pal) (yes, y’all, they share me, which is kinda weird) once told me, “Plot and story can be fixed, taught, learned. Voice is either there or it’s not. Voice is everything.” And he was right. I love it when something like this, voice, is an across-the-board necessity.
    Thanks for this.

  • Thanks for this post, Lucienne. I think too often writers focus on character voice in the dialogue but keep to their own voice in the narration. The ability to tell the story through the characters is indeed what makes a novel stand out.

  • As far as I’ve been told, I’m good with voice. And when I’m writing a character, I’m in that character’s head, responding as that character, and noticing only the things that character would notice, though admittedly, I do think in movie and sometimes a somewhat more neutral narration will pop out, sort of like a scene change to a wide-angle shot. I usually try to modify them when I catch them, but every once in a while I’ll leave one in for effect. It doesn’t happen as much in first person, I think because I’m more firmly ensconced in that character’s head, but seems more prevalent in my third person works.

  • […] I’m over at Magical Words today talking about Authenticity of Voice, I’m pleased to host Amanda Ashby here, talking about her great new middle-grade novels.  […]

  • This is one of the things I’m very conscious of as I write, and I still find myself writing in my voice rather than the character’s voice. At least now I’m usually aware of it as it happens rather than only seeing it later when I read what I’ve written. I’ve been talking to, reading about and watching documentaries about people who have common interests and jobs as my characters, which has been helpful. When I write I can focus on one sentence or image from the research that helps get me into that mindset.

  • I think that voice is what I have come to work hardest on with my books and stories. I didn’t used to, because I don’t think I understood it sufficiently early in my career. But I’ve come to believe that voice is the key to blending character and narrative, which pretty much makes it the crucial element of any story. Nice post, Lucienne.

  • Thanks everyone for coming by! I’m very conscious of voice right now, because one of the characters in my WIP died before the novel opens, but her story is at the heart of everything that happens, and I need to know her as well as I do my protagonist. I’m having to write her diary entries, and I’m trying a bit of method writing (as opposed to method acting). I bought a nice journal and everything for “her” this past weekend. Unfortunately, it’s far too pretty for what’s going into it, and I’ve found that my plain black spiral bound notebook is unleashing the voice much better than the beautiful journal. Funny how these things happen.

  • ajp88

    Voice is probably the thing I’m most in need of improving. I have such an interwoven story with little ties between POVs that I sometimes forget to authenticate narration to each different voice. For one or two characters (my favorites) I’ve fully found their voice and have no real trouble slipping into it but for the others it’s a constant struggle.

  • Awesome advice, Lucienne!

  • Razziecat

    Like Daniel, I have more trouble with third person voice than with first. I also feel more confident in voice when I’m writing my space opera stories, and I think that’s because those people have lived in my head for many years. Ask me what any of those characters thinks of just about any subject and I not only know the answer, I can tell you in that person’s POV. In my fantasy stories, it’s more of a struggle, but as I explore the characters in little “side stories”, it’s getting better.

  • Gypsyharper

    Very timely post. I’ve been thinking a lot about voice lately – especially as I’m beta reading a friend’s manuscript and I think the voice of her POV character (it’s first person) is very strong. The voice in my WIP progress is a mess, but it’s still early in the process and I’m still getting to know the characters, so hopefully it will get better as I go.

    It’s funny that you should mention those pretty notebooks, Lucienne. I’m always buying pretty journals, and then can’t think of anything suitable to fill them and end up writing in plain old spiral notebooks. 🙂

  • Ha ha, I’ll chime in on the pretty notebooks as well. The more I spend on the stuff around the writing, the more difficult the writing seems to be. 🙂 Great post, thanks Lucienne.