One of the more difficult concepts for writers is the idea of “voice.” This topic was one of the many things our “writer’s thread” presenter, Emily Lockhart, spoke about at Kindling Words this weekend. Emily’s own inimitable voice filled our mornings with laughter and provoked some intense reflection and revision in a lot of people’s works-in-progress.
This is a broad subject, so I will return to it in future posts.
We use the term “voice” to describe a couple of different aspects of a written work, which can be confusing, but the aspects are in fact connected and so the multi-faceted term is actually appropriate. And working on one aspect will help to strengthen the others in your writing. The “voices” we most often refer to are the characters’ voices, the narrator’s voice, and finally and most amorphously, the author’s voice.
The first “voice” to consider is probably the easiest to describe, and that is the voice of your characters. It is obvious, when you think about it, that different people speak differently. You can generally tell with your eyes closed whether you are listening to a child or an adult, a teenager or an elderly person, a man or a woman. Often a person’s voice reveals their ethnicity, their social standing, their education. On the occasion that you open your eyes and discover you’ve drawn an incorrect conclusion, the shock is quite striking. In addition, we all vary our speech depending on our circumstances, our emotional state, and our audience. Our “voice” is a combination of the unchanging characteristics of our speech and the variables we choose, consciously or unconsciously, in response to our changing world.
We tend to become writers because of a fascination with language, so these observations are probably not earth-shaking to you. What can you do with them?
First, listen. Eavesdrop on the people around you in the elevator. Hang out in the food court at the mall. Shelf-read in the children’s room at the library when it’s full of preschoolers. Notice and absorb the voices. Not just the words people use, but their tones, their cadences, the way their voices change when they speak with their peers or their superiors (bosses, parents, elder siblings).
Next (and actually, this should be ongoing), read. Read current books in the genre you’re writing in, and read classic books by great writers. As you read, pay attention to the voices of various characters. How does the author allow you to hear that character speaking? Take notes – or try to imitate what they have done (create a scene that’s not in the book, between characters who are – like fan fiction). Compare different books by the same writer; and books for similar audiences by different writers. Some suggestions – Lois Lowry writes both “light” and “serious” fiction – compare the voices of Anastasia and her family with those of the Tates, and then with the families in A Summer to Die and Autumn Street. Then listen to the voices in Katherine Paterson’s books: Jip and Lyddie, Takiko in Of Nightingales that Weep and Muna in Sign of the Chrysanthemum.
Next, practice. Begin with yourself. Pick something exciting that has happened to you, or that you’ve done. Write a scene in which you describe that event to your best friend. Write it again as if you’re telling your aged mother about it. Write it again, as if you are reporting the event to the newspaper – or the police. Notice the changes in your word choices, the details you highlight or downplay, the way you describe your emotions and reactions.
Try this exercise again, using a fictional speaker – a child or a teenager. Give your character an exciting experience to relate – to friends and to foes, to parents and to authorities. Now give that fictional speaker something sad to talk about, again to different listeners.
Now look at your current work-in-progress. In fact, don’t look at it, read it out loud. Do your child or teen characters sound authentic? Do they sound like the kids you were eavesdropping on at the mall or the library? People don’t always speak in complete sentences, or with perfect grammar.
Can you tell your characters apart in dialogue by their speech patterns? If not, can you find a way for their speech patterns to reveal something about them, either who they are or how they’re feeling?