Voice. You know it as an elusive, magical something that everyone looks for in great writing. The secret sauce that will supposedly make your words stand out from all others written before or since.
Voice is like your writing’s DNA. Grammar, style, tone, and content all contribute to a unique voice. Some writers seem to come by it naturally. Others will need to develop it intentionally over time. Either way, there are a few things you need to know about voice.
The narrator’s voice does not always equal the author’s voice.
When we write non-fiction, we infuse our voice into our work to make it a unique expression of us. Fiction often requires us to adopt a specific character’s voice: our point-of-view character or our narrator. Sometimes this voice will hew closely to our own. Other times we’ll write from a different perspective.
The narrator’s voice will most often diverge from your own voice in a first-person or close third-person point of view. In these cases readers get inside the point-of-view character’s head. They see that character’s internal monologue. Every story and setting detail passes through the filter of the point-of-view character’s personality and life experiences.
Craft your voice as you craft your characters.
When I was a kid my mom always used to tell me, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Perhaps even more than content, tone determines how others interpret our words. Remember this when you write from a character’s point of view. Is your character warm and friendly or distant and judgmental? Is she pragmatic or ruled by her emotions? How self-aware is she? How humble? Use these traits to inform not only what that character says and thinks, but the rhythm and style of the prose itself.
When it comes to content, you need to write your descriptions through your main character’s lens, not your own. Think about his social class, life experiences, professional background, and anything else that might inform his observations on the world. If you put three people in a room at a party, you will get three very different interpretations of the people, objects, and events they see in front of them. The key to writing genuine, realistic characters is to tap into their unique perspective on the world.
Voice will immerse your readers in the story.
I just finished reading Angie Thomas’ On the Come Up, and let me tell you: she hooked me from the very first page. For over four hundred pages, I lived in the main character’s head. I saw what she saw and moved through her world. When you nail your point-of-view character’s voice, you eliminate any distance between readers and the page. Your readers stop reading the story and start experiencing it firsthand.
You can also use voice to create intentional narrative distance. For example, maybe you have an omniscient third-person narrator whose voice becomes almost like an invisible character in the story. The television series Arrested Development and Gossip Girl used this technique to great effect. No matter how you choose to write your book, a distinctive, unforgettable voice will make it stand out in readers’ memories long after they’ve finished the last page.