An author has a particular voice, but in fiction, each of the characters should have a distinct and separate voice, too. That’s how readers come to feel they know a character.
Recently this subject has come up in a number of ways. Last month I wrote a short, fun piece (there’s a quz 😉 ) about voice, especially in relationship to dialogue, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. I was playing off an excellent article about dialogue by author Kay Marshall Strom. Then this past Monday two other industry professionals posted on the topic: agent Chip MacGregor on his site and author Patti Hill at the team blog Novel Matters.
Chip focused largely on the writer’s voice while Patti expounded on the character’s voice. Here are a couple significant passages from each, but I recommend you read their posts for yourself.
- YOUR writing voice will show up as YOUR personality on the page. When your family hears it read, they should know it’s you. When your faithful readers see it, they’ll know it’s not some other author, because it sounds like you. The word choice, the descriptions, the phrasing, the tone, the sentence length, the topics, the approach, the attitude – it’s all you. Your unique way of expressing yourself.
- Elizabeth George defines voice (how brave of her) like this: “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking.” Voice is the tone that comes through the narrative, and tone is the product of knowing my characters better than myself. (emphasis mine)
Regarding the marriage of an author’s voice with his characters’ voices, Chip again, in a comment to the post:
- The best novelists allow their characters to speak and act in a way different from them — otherwise it would make for a very boring book. At the same time, I think there’s something in choice of story, theme, characters, approach, events, conflict, context, and what agent Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency” that helps reveal the author’s overall voice.
Why, you might ask, is voice so important?
Chip once more:
- As an agent, I find myself MUCH more drawn to a great writing voice than any other factor.
A great writing voice should set an author apart from others. It’s interesting because it’s different. But be careful (and I can only hope agents and editors are). A voice that is interesting for a paragraph or two can become tedious or annoying when stretched over three hundred pages.
I read such a book a couple years ago. The character was unique, without a doubt, and had a different outlook that came through in his voice. But the “difference,” to me, was unattractive. I didn’t like “living” with that character for an entire novel. His voice undergirded some traits that were not admirable.
So I think choosing a character voice is a bit of a balancing act. It needs to be different, but “quirky” can be asking more of your readers than they want to give.