March 24, 2012

Capturing Voice

Last week I wrote a post on Robert Louis Stevenson, and in it I briefly remarked on his ability to keep the voice of the main character unique in each of his books (as many as I have read). It stood out to me in particular due to Stevenson's almost exclusive use of first-person narration - something which I have yet to attempt in a full-length novel. Several people commented on this and I thought I had better go into a little more depth on what I meant by "voice."

The concept of a story's voice turns up a great deal in writer-speech: establishing one's voice, finding an editor or agent who likes your voice, getting into a voice, differences in voice, and so on and so forth. It's used so much that it gets downright confusing, since people rarely stop to define their terms. What does it mean to say that every writer must develop his voice? And if every writer has a voice, why did I say that the voice differs in each of Stevenson's novels? Was I actually delivering an insult to his writing style in the clever guise of a compliment?

The trouble is that there are at least two voices that go into creating the atmosphere of any story, and writers tend not to discriminate between them when they talk about a novel's feel. This leads to apparent contradictions: writers should maintain their voices, but the voice should differ from one book to the next. In the first instance the voice is that of the author, while in the second, the voice refers to the narrating character (or characters).

author's voice

The author's voice is the style of writing, for a loose definition. I can't offer a more concrete one, because the concept is rather nebulous; it is what makes the story peculiar to that writer. Even within the scope of one era or genre, two books will never have the same voice unless one of the authors is blatantly copying the other. Dickens' voice, for instance, is not the same as Gaskell's, although they write about similar themes; Austen's voice could never for a moment be confused with any of the Bronte sisters'; my own voice is vastly different from Jenny's, although we are sisters. Voices may have similarities, just as a class of people may share an accent, but no two will ever be exactly the same.

"Develop your voice" is a rather pretentious way of saying that every serious writer must learn to write well, and write well in his or her own way. It isn't a conscious effort whereby you piece together your style; it's a matter of practice and perseverance, allowing your skills to grow with each manuscript. Voice is not stagnant, or at least it shouldn't be. Writing should improve from one book to the next, and with that improvement comes subtle changes to the author's voice. We can't expect every story to sound alike, even at this basic level; they will be different, while still maintaining that something that makes each uniquely that writer's.

Again, voice is nebulous. We can identify elements that make two authors differ, but there is no capturing the spirit of their writing, no putting it under a microscope or dissecting it in a lab. A writer's voice is an articulation of thought and spirit and thus incapable of being fully grasped. It does have to be honed; but in the mad rush to do so, people often get so caught up in the mechanics that they lose sight of the fact that voice cannot be stressed into existence. It comes on its own and develops at its own pace, maturing with each story as the writer continues to push himself.

character's voice

Nearly every story has a narrator, and I only say "nearly" in case someone decides to reach into the depths of the literary ocean to fish out some counterexample. Some stories have multiple narrators, or POV characters, from whose eyes the novel is told. Their voice, flowing from who they are as a character, will influence the story as much as the author's voice does; thus a flat protagonist will result in a dull voice. Characters have to be well-rounded and of some depth, and once they have dimension, a worthwhile voice will likely follow as a matter of course. It's the same as with an author: the very effort of writing is the best maturer of voice.

Character voices tend to change from story to story much more than the author's voice does. They are different people, from different walks of life and cast into different circumstances, and these variables will naturally affect the flavor of a story and how it is told. Character voices ought to differ. But again, I am of the opinion that writers spend far too much time obsessing over the uniqueness of their protagonist's voice and fussing over how to correct it, especially early on in the story. One rarely plunges into a novel knowing the main character as well as he or she should be known; generally the protagonist has to be fleshed out as the writer goes along. Vocal cords will develop somewhere on the way.

As a caveat, it is possible to have no voice in writing, but it does not come through a lack of effort on the writer's part. Indeed, I think it more likely to come when the writer tries too hard. A lack of voice, of spirit, of personality itself comes when the cold hard rules of writing are adhered to, but no life is allowed to seep into the words themselves. Authors may so struggle to hone their craft, focus so minutely on the gears of writing, and study the dos and don'ts so religiously, that they lose sight of the beauty of storytelling. This is when voice is lost. This is when writing no longer has a purpose.


  1. Great post! I think this is the reason why fan fiction often disappoints--it's just impossible to perfectly imitate the original author's voice. Character's voice is a little easier to imitate, if they have a distinct voice. You mentioned Dickens, and I think his author's voice often overpowered his narrator's voice, which actually worked for him.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Marian. I'm not a huge fan (heh!) of fan-fiction simply because it seems to be stealing another man's thunder, but you've added another dimension to it, because no one can use the author's thunder as well as that author himself.

    Dickens' style is so fascinating. On the one hand he has such unique and memorable characters, and yet on the other, his voice as an author is the stronger of the two voices. If you ask me, he's proof that one needn't adhere too closely to the rules of writing!

  3. What a great article! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I to dislike fan fiction but there is nothing that will make you a better writer then to imitate the greats. Great post.

  5. Great post, Abigail. I just tagged you by the way on my blog, hope you join!

  6. Glad you enjoyed the post, gals! Joy, thanks for the tag; I'll at least answer the questions you asked, even if I don't do ten "random" things about myself. Your literary-themed questions are intriguing.

  7. The random things about yourself are optional, so you don't have to do it! Honestly, I don't know what got the better of me, but I felt like asking really difficult literary questions I'm pretty sure I'd find hard to answer myself =D. Looking forward to reading your answers.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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