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.