Whenever I speak at a convention or even on live events or on the phone with people who have never heard me speak before, they almost always say they "love my accent." The first time someone said this to me, I was like, "Accent? What accent?" To me, it's just the way I talk. Sure, I say "y'all" and "bless her heart" and "white" instead of "white." But I'm so used to hearing myself and those around me speak this way, it just seems natural.
I'm willing to bet many of you have heard someone, somewhere say, while providing feedback on your work, that it needs more "voice" or that they didn't identify with the "voice." How many of you are nodding your heads right now? And what do we do the first time we hear this advice? We struggle and we toil and we Google, trying to figure out exactly what these agents, publishers, or even beta readers want when they say they need "voice." But it still feels like that elusive carrot we're constantly chasing like some over-eager greyhound.
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What Is Voice Exactly?
Think of voice like a piece of fruit. Say, an orange. On the outside, all oranges look the same, right? But then, you peel the outside away and you get this lump of sections that are hopefully soft and full of sweet, fruity juice. But what happens if we take a bite of that orange slice we've been working to get at for what seems like forever and…nothing.
There's no juice. No flavor. No sweetness squishing out. What would you do? You'd probably spit it out. And you definitely would not want to ever try an orange again because what good is a piece of fruit…all full of the promise of juicy sweet goodness…only to be disappointed by its blandness?
Now, there are three aspects that make up voice: the author's voice, the narrator's voice, and the character's voice.
The way a writer chooses his words, structures his sentences, and even uses punctuation all make up the author's voice. An author's writing should reveal their attitude, personality, and character.
If an author has done an awesome job of including his unique voice, a reader should be able to identify the author by simply reading a small section of their work. For example, Hunter S. Thompson's influential "gonzo" style is often hailed as one of the most distinctive and unique voices in the history of American Literature.
Every character in your story should have an individual way of speaking, phrasing things, and communicating with one another. These elements make up a character's "voice."
If you've effectively created each character in a way that they're easily distinguishable from one another, you've done a good job of giving each character their own voice. This is especially important when it comes to the protagonist. Since the story revolves around the main character, it's imperative they have a unique voice.
But what if you're writing a book in third person, and you're not necessarily featuring the protagonist's voice, rather, you're telling the story through the eyes of some other character or even some omniscient narrator who knows all and sees all. In that case, as well, you'll need to give the narrator a unique voice that is so distinct, it's obvious when you switch between narrative and dialogue because the narrator's voice sounds so different from any of the characters.
The author, narrator, and characters' style and manner of speaking work together to create the voice of the story altogether.
Example of Voice Done Right
One of the best examples I've read lately of a book with clear and distinctive voice is Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens.
Owens' protagonist, Kya, is a young girl who grows up in the marshes of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Without giving much away (because you MUST read this book), she is "schooled" both in books and life by a local boy named Tate as she grows into young adulthood. Tate is more educated than Kya, and he teaches her everything a young, lonely girl needs to learn. And I'll leave it at that.
The way Owens paints the setting all around is beautiful and vivid. It played like a movie in my mind. But the way she wrote the narrative, and especially Kya's dialogue and those of the other southern characters, made this book unputdownable. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially to anyone struggling with adding voice to their story.
Why Is Voice so Important?
How you tell your story is just as important as the words you use. Stephen King once said, "People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice."
Les Edgerton, Author of Finding Your Voice says, "Contrary to what many think, I don't believe readers are attracted nearly so much to plots and characters as much as they are to the personality of the person regaling them on the page."
As mentioned earlier, if a story lacks voice, it'll read like just another run of the mill story. There will be nothing to draw the reader in, grab them by the heartstrings, and yank down hard until they cannot put your book down. The absolute best way to accomplish this is to ensure you're incorporating a unique and distinctive voice.
What NOT to Do When Writing Voice
Authors so often struggle with WHAT to say, they forget that it's just as important to focus on HOW you say it.
I also think a lot of authors focus so much on writing correctly and showing off their vast vocabulary, they still come up short because, then, their prose and even dialogue come out stuffy and overly formal. I often say this kind of writing is beige. We don't want to be beige, do we? No. We want our writing to be colorful and rich (think rainbows), and writing with voice can absolutely make that happen. Don't stress over sounding perfect and polite and highly educated. That's not what readers want from you. They're not concerned about the impressive list of big, fancy words you learned in high school. They simply want you to tell them a great story and tell it well.
Another problem for new writers is that they try to sound too "writerly." Novelist Dennis Foley once said, "New fiction writers somehow think that they need to write at a different level of sophistication. Couldn't be further from the truth. The goal should be to communicate with the reader the same way they would when telling a story to a good friend. It is a hard habit to break, a hangover from school days, but a writer's personality and style—his voice—will only come through in his writing when he relaxes and focuses on the needs of the reader."
So, when writing your novel, try not to try too hard. Try to imagine sitting down to coffee with an old friend and telling them this story. How exactly would your narrator and/or protagonist speak? One thing's for sure, unless they happen to be a Harvard English Professor, they're certainly not going to sit up stock straight, pop out their pinky, and tell the story formally. No, they'd add their own voice to the story as they tell it.
Replace all those fancy words with simpler words. I'm not saying dumb it down. I'm simply saying don't try to impress your readers with five-dollar words. They simply don't need that. Not only that, but they might even get slightly frustrated with the overly formal language and set it aside. Also, don't write these elaborate sentences full of several clauses and sub-clauses, and simply use the most clear and concise, to the point sentences you can. Again, don't take this too far in the other direction, either. Find a nice middle ground where the writing is beautiful in its simplicity.
Again, your voice is a reflection of who you are. Which, in turn, will reflect in your choice of reading. Which will reflect in the kind of books you want to write yourself. And which will reflect in the kind of readers you attract.
Research Voice in Fiction
And, finally, do some research on successful authors who have written stories set in the same regions your novel is set in, or authors who generally rock at voice in fiction (like Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, Leonard Elmore, and I argue, Philippa Gregory, and many more) and devour as much of their writing as you can. Especially if it happens to be in the same genre you're writing in.
Make notes. Highlight. Underline. Mark pages. Doing this will absolutely help you not only discern what makes for great voice in fiction, but it will also imprint this practice in your brain to the point it will, one day, just become a natural part of your writing journey.