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View Full Version : "VOICE" -- What IS it, anyway?



WordsWithoutAFace
07-08-2008, 12:03 AM
Someone (a non-writer) recently asked me what I meant when I said "voice" in writing. And I had a hard time verbalizing it.

A while back, I had an editor decline to read more of my manuscript because she didn't like my protag's "voice." Said, if I'd work on that, change it, she'd be open to reading it again.

I wasn't going to change something for one person's "well, maybe if." So I didn't.

And I wasn't sure exactly what I'd be changing.

So tell me. How do you define "voice?"

How would you go about changing a character's "voice" if you were requested to do so?

Barber
07-08-2008, 12:20 AM
It's the way the character's personality translates onto the page. I'm not sure you could really change it without starring a new character. If that's who they are, that's who they are.

Another way to sum-up the voice is to call it your narrative style. Your voice will change from book to book in order to reflect the character(s) narrating the story, provided you as a writer really understand the character.

Tirjasdyn
07-08-2008, 12:21 AM
It's the sound in your head when you're reading.

ASRafferty
07-08-2008, 12:28 AM
So tell me. How do you define "voice?"

How would you go about changing a character's "voice" if you were requested to do so?

It's the "ventriloquism" that goes with writing... if you're old enough (unfortunately I am) to remember Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy or Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, you know that the ventriloquist is said to throw his voice (into a puppet or dummy), but what he's really doing is throwing the character's voice. Often, speechwriters and "ghostwriters" are told they need to write in the "voice" of the person who will "front" what's being said, and it's the same thing. You sort of have to become "possessed" by the person (in your case, the character) and speak/write in a way that would sound natural coming out of his/her mouth.

Method acting is also about this... knowing EVERYTHING about the character (beyond the lines on the page, and whether it's relevant to the story or not... actors come up with a story/biography of their character, just so they can say the lines in the character's voice) so that you can "voice" for them without any of "you" showing.

I don't know any other way into it. When I ghosted for the head of the school where I worked, it was after listening to him, reading him, watching him in all kinds of situations, so that when I finally got around to "speaking" (writing) things for him to say or sign, he was able to embrace them, and no one said, "gee, that doesn't SOUND like him!"

Teachers who read for students "borrowing" (aka plagiarizing) get sensitive to voice as well, after reading stuff they know the student wrote.... BUSTED!!!! :)

So... bottom line... know your character well enough so that anyone hearing what he/she says wouldn't start and say, "that doesn't sound like Seymour!"

PS -- as for your editor, one of two things going on: either the "voice" you gave the character was off, or you "voiced" the character perfectly and the editor just didn't like the character!

She_wulf
07-08-2008, 01:09 AM
Voice can also be called "writing style" or writer's voice. Clive Cussler has a different "voice" than Christopher Moore. Just as Hemingway had a different voice than Joyce.

Character voice is different. That could be the way the character narrates (first person, second person...) or it could be their personality.

First person relies on character voice and personality more because the book is narrated by the MC. This form of narration confuses many people and leads to poorly written novels. I'm not certain that your novel is in first person, but it could be - which would have the opportunity to turn off a potential editor. First person is not simply telling the story using the word "I."

Here's why:

(randomly opening a very good book poorly written in first person)

I sighed, burrowed my back deeper into my bed. I was retreading the same mental ground, going over and over what I knew of demons, hoping I would somehow think of something new that would make me feel better about this.
Four "I"s in three sentences. GEEESH! Filtering much...

Here's a better example of first person (again randomly opened)

He waved a hand. "The dead are terrified of whatever is moving around out there. Necromancers can enslave them. Control them. Even destroy them."
So they can feel their power?" I asked.
"Absolutely."
"Good," I said, "I was counting on that."
Mort frowned and arched an eyebrow.
"I'm not sure how many of them are in town," I said, "I need to know where they are - or at least how many of them are here. I want you to ask the dead to help me located them."
He lifted both hands.
In the second example, the narrator isn't as front and center as the first example. There is less time spent dwelling in the MC's head and more time focused on the world(read as: story) around him.

There are more critics of the first example than the second example. Why, probably because the MC doesn't stand in the way of the story, he simply tells it. That is key. So, if your story is first person, and an editor says they don't like it, ask yourself, "Is my MC standing in the way of the story?"

Or, better (and easier) ask, "How many times am I using "I" in a paragraph?"

This is a much easier barometer of what is wrong. (Filtering)

OK, maybe you're not using first person. Maybe your MC is unlikeable or unbelievable.

We wouldn't "like" Hannibal Lector to be our narrator. We would want to root for the MC if they were were a pollyanna with no real conflict either. Or perhaps the MC is a superhero where everything comes easy. That's unbelievable in the context of a story because stories are all about conflict.
But, on the flip side of this, Norman Bates may make a believable narrator. Why? because his character is so conflicted. He wouldn't hurt a fly, right?

Without any details it would be hard to pin point what the editor didn't like.

Or perhaps you got an editor that wasn't involved in the right genre. That happens too.

So... perhaps post a bit in the Share Your Work section under the correct genre and see what folks say there. Or, pick up a few "on writing" books that deal with character development. Both would help. The first suggestion is more personalized than the second. Or simply reply back here and post some...

Amy

geardrops
07-08-2008, 01:57 AM
So tell me. How do you define "voice?"

How would you go about changing a character's "voice" if you were requested to do so?

If I pick up a book without seeing the author, read a paragraph, and name the author, that author has a distinct voice. No one else writes like him/her.

Cut out all the said-tags from your characters. Can you still tell who's talking? Can the reader? That's voice.

pconsidine
07-08-2008, 02:24 AM
In my experience, the concept of "voice" is one of the most over-thought ideas in fiction and probably the cause of more writers' insanity than anything else. But it's really simple. Tirjasdyn's description as "the sound in your head when you're reading" is probably the simplest and most accurate definition I've ever heard. My definition? Voice is the sum total of everything on the page the language, the length of the words, the pace and rhythm of the writing, how it relates to the world of the story and the characters everything. Just like someone's speaking voice, it's an automatic trait and something that's very hard to change after the fact without concerted effort. Truth be told, I tend to consider voice one of the great unteachable aspects of writing and the true indicator of talent, but that might just be me.

For me as a reader and editor, the biggest problems of voice usually come from writers who are trying to capital-W Write instead of just letting the words flow. Imagine someone doing a bad impersonation of John F. Kennedy or Elvis and you'll get what I mean. It's just not their voice and it shows. What I've suggested before is for the writer to take a page from their story and rewrite it as if they were telling someone sitting in front of them. Don't try to pitch the story or anything. Just relay the information on that page as if it were a conversation and see if you get any different results.

Ultimately, I don't see the point in trying to "re-voice" a story for the sake of one person's opinion. As I mentioned above, it's often very difficult to do without concerted effort and that effort usually stifles the life of the writing anyway. Of course, if you find yourself in a situation where the voice you've used isn't appropriate to the story you're trying to tell (e.g., using a hip-hop style to tell a Victorian steam-punk story), it's more a matter of misunderstanding your story than having a "bad" voice and should definitely be rewritten.

Sorry for the rambling post, but my bottom-line advice would be, "don't worry about it."

DeleyanLee
07-08-2008, 02:35 AM
To my experience, there's three "voices" in every work of fiction. Sometimes they're close together, sometimes they're not, but I generally can find three in there.

1. The author's voice. This is the style they write in, formal or informal, the great "undertone" of the harmony that a story has.

2. The book's voice. This can be influenced by the setting or whatever, but each story will carry its own voice or tone that's unique to it. It's usually the closest to the author's voice.

3. The Characters' voice, particularly the main narrator. I lump all these together because all stories have at least one. These can be sharp, loud, mouthy, subtle, whatever. They may mesh in with the authors or seem to drown them out. It's also the one that most people will remember after putting the book down.

How you get it--just write and trust yourself and your story. As you write, you'll find your own voice. Have confidence in your story and its characters and let them develop what they need to make themselves distinquished.

For me to change a character's voice, I have to re-envision the character and imagine them from a different facet of their personality. Not change their character, no, because that character fits into the story and I don't want to change the story. But experiencing the character differently will always give me a slightly different voice for them.

Good luck to you.

She_wulf
07-08-2008, 03:17 AM
I'm going to expand just a bit off of DeleyanLee's post.

An author can have more than one voice.

Or

an author can be known for their voice.

I'll give examples.

JRR Tolkein wrote Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit using a different narrative "style" or voice than the Simarillion. He took an entirely different approach to ...oh shoot, can't remember the correct title... Farmer Giles and Ham?

Or

Ray Bradbury
You can pick out small town Illinois whether he is writing about a traveling fair with sinister dealings, Martians, or detectives. (keeps the same voice)

Or
Steven Brust
His Draghera novels have different narrative voices dependent on the narrator. Vlad Taltos speaks entirely differently than Parfi. You might not be able to discern that the same author wrote these books.

Hemingway was known foremost for his terse writing style. Joyce was known for extended complex sentences. King is known for dropping the f-bomb. (maybe not always...but you get my drift?)

Tom Clancy? Info dumps embedded in action sequences.

Anne Rice...well...

I hope you see my point. Voice is both a subjective concept and a concrete one. Tirjasdyn's description is quite accurate. It is a writing style. It is a reading reaction. There is both visceral and obscure feelings that develop when voice is applied well. And it can be the stuff of genius.

Developing your own voice takes time and a good agent. Developing your character's voice is essential to becoming a convincing author. One is talent, luck, and flair, the other is hard work with a payoff. Neither is necessarily one or the other. (If I can assume to be so vague...lol)

Good luck.

Amy

WordsWithoutAFace
07-08-2008, 03:59 AM
So... bottom line... know your character well enough so that anyone hearing what he/she says wouldn't start and say, "that doesn't sound like Seymour!"

PS -- as for your editor, one of two things going on: either the "voice" you gave the character was off, or you "voiced" the character perfectly and the editor just didn't like the character!

Thank you for your insight. I would like to believe that the editor just didn't like the character. :D In fairness to the character, nobody else seemed to have a problem with her. They had other problems. As in, could this process be ANY more subjective?!?!


Voice can also be called "writing style" or writer's voice. Clive Cussler has a different "voice" than Christopher Moore. Just as Hemingway had a different voice than Joyce.

Character voice is different. That could be the way the character narrates (first person, second person...) or it could be their personality.

First person relies on character voice and personality more because the book is narrated by the MC. This form of narration confuses many people and leads to poorly written novels. I'm not certain that your novel is in first person, but it could be - which would have the opportunity to turn off a potential editor. First person is not simply telling the story using the word "I."


...


OK, maybe you're not using first person. Maybe your MC is unlikeable or unbelievable.

Without any details it would be hard to pin point what the editor didn't like.

Or perhaps you got an editor that wasn't involved in the right genre. That happens too.

So... perhaps post a bit in the Share Your Work section under the correct genre and see what folks say there. Or, pick up a few "on writing" books that deal with character development. Both would help. The first suggestion is more personalized than the second. Or simply reply back here and post some...

Amy

What a well thought-out response, Amy -- thank you. My story is in 3rd person. The editor wasn't precise on why she didn't like the character's voice -- just that she didn't like it. (Talk about helpful, huh?)

I'm sorely tempted to post some material for feedback, but I'm awfully protective of my "anonymous" status round these here parts. *snuffle*




Ultimately, I don't see the point in trying to "re-voice" a story for the sake of one person's opinion. As I mentioned above, it's often very difficult to do without concerted effort and that effort usually stifles the life of the writing anyway. Of course, if you find yourself in a situation where the voice you've used isn't appropriate to the story you're trying to tell (e.g., using a hip-hop style to tell a Victorian steam-punk story), it's more a matter of misunderstanding your story than having a "bad" voice and should definitely be rewritten.

Sorry for the rambling post, but my bottom-line advice would be, "don't worry about it."

I will take your advice, and gladly! :)



For me to change a character's voice, I have to re-envision the character and imagine them from a different facet of their personality. Not change their character, no, because that character fits into the story and I don't want to change the story. But experiencing the character differently will always give me a slightly different voice for them.

Good luck to you.

Very helpful insight, thank you!

Willowmound
07-08-2008, 02:56 PM
Truth be told, I tend to consider voice one of the great unteachable aspects of writing and the true indicator of talent, but that might just be me.

Not just you.

Ralph Pines
07-10-2008, 06:36 AM
The first positive reaction I have received here (and thanks to all who have pitched in a waded through my post!) is that they like the "voice". Reading the posts below and if don't loose said voice, I think I am on the right track.