Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Follow-up on Voice

There were a few good questions asked about voice on Monday's post, but my answers were too long to make in comments, so I thought I'd give them the proper attention today.

Kelly Bryson asked: Sooo, what's the difference between the writer's voice and the character's voice?
To me, writer's voice is the overall feel of the narrative, while the character's voice is, well, the character's personality, etc.

This is much easier to see in a book written in third person. Take The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman or Lips Touch by Laini Taylor (one of my favorites last year). Both these books have a strong narrating voice that isn't necessarily the character's voice. I call both these writers Master Storytellers, because it's their voice that draws me in.

It's harder to pinpoint the differences in first person books, since the main character is the one who's essentially telling the story. But the writer's voice it's still there, and if you read several different books by one author you'll see it. Take Sarah Dessen, for example. She writes first person but doesn't write series—all her books have a "feel" to them that comes from her voice. I've written, um, like 7-8 projects in first person, and in every one my voice/style is still there.

No matter if in third or first person, our characters will still be translated through our unique lens. Our voice. I've read a lot of my friends' works, of course, and I know what to expect from each of them. And what's cool? They most always deliver (I smack them if they don't). Kiersten is always witty and fast-paced. Carrie is consistently ridiculous in the best way possible. Steph is a pro at simultaneously making my heart ache and flutter. Kasie never fails to make me smile the whole way through. In "darker" work or tense situations, in a myriad of character voices, whatever—their voices shine through.

Is it possible to know an author's voice in just one book? I can recognize Kate Dicamillo. Is voice just the things that make you go 'this sounds just like...'?
I think it's possible to know an author's voice on the first page, even. And it should be there from line one until the end. Voice is kind of like your brand. Sure, not everyone will like it, but those who LOVE it will expect it and crave it and be angry when they don't get it.

L.T. Elliot asked: Do you feel like you can have a different "voice" for different projects, though? I have two VERY different stories (okay, a lot more than two) and the voices are way different. Is that bad?
You might be thinking of character voices, which can be vastly different from book to book. If so—not bad at all! You'd be surprised how much you can stretch your voice and still keep it in tact. My "darkest" book is still soaked with my dry wit and sarcasm. It's like I can't help myself or something.

If you mean that you honestly think that your voice has changed with each project, then I'd say maybe you aren't quite sure of what your voice is yet. And that's okay, too! I wasn't sure of my voice for a long time. Like, years. It wasn't until I began writing a lot that I started to pick it up, which is why I'm a big proponent of free writing.

After having written about five books, I went back one month and read them all back to back. This was one of my biggest lessons in voice. Seeing so much of my writing in one dose, I noticed my tendency to "subtle humor," sparse yet punchy description, plucky characters, etc. I also noticed I struggled with repetition, melodrama, over-tagging, etc.

I would say look at your "very different" works, search for the similarities, and you might be able to nail down some aspects of your voice.


  1. Have to come out of hiding to say that after reading Monday's post and comments I was hoping you'd respond to Kelly Bryson's question. Your explanation is bang on. I'm currently in the process of revising a story from third person into first and finding it difficult to know if my voice is still intact. I tell myself that sometimes we just have to trust ourselves and keep writing. Too much analyzing can be stifling.

    Carol Garvin

  2. What a treat, I have never really thought about it but my personality and voice comes out in my story very much, though since I use first person it is much the characters personality that drives it, I think you're right though, you really can't change your voice, it follows you so it's better to embrace it!

    Fantastic post!

  3. Thanks for your insights! Voice is hard for us who are just starting out. I like the way you have described it. It makes sense to me.

  4. Great insights. I struggle with other people's comments on my writing. If I change things to what beta readers suggest does that change my voice?

  5. Another great post on the topic.

    While, in general I agree that an author will have the same voice in different books, it is possible to have a different voice. I've noticed most of mine tend to be the same (romance, mystery, fantasy, etc) (first person and third person) with only slight different in the details. First person it is easier to have my own sort of thought process showing than in third but they usually have a similar tone.

    However, there is one book at the moment I've started but put to the back burner for the moment that has a very different tone overall. It is different in character since it's my only female main character but the difference is more than that. This book is more formal in thought and language. The overall voice is just different. I even had someone who did a readover, since I submitted the first chapter to a critique group to see what the initial reaction would be, who had an unusual response. He asked if English wasn't my first language because it sounded too perfect. To clarify, English is my only language with a few spanish words known and that is all. lol

    Just a thought. Great post and choice in topic.

  6. Thanks for answering my question, Natalie. I'm going to have to read through a few of them back to back and see if I can still spot "me" in there. =]

  7. I'll have to see if I can see "me" in some of my previous works too. Sometimes I see a glimmer of something...and then I lose it :P Or I'm just not good enough to pick it out just yet.

  8. Thanks for answering, Natalie. I'm writing a multiple first person urban fantasy novel, and I've been so focused on making sure the characters sound separate from each other and like themselves that I had not thought AT ALL about my voice. Hopefully it's made it's way in there!

  9. Gahh! Sarah Dessen! Steph pointed me toward her just the other day, for voice purposes. It's like you ladies know what I'm working on and who I know! lol.

    Excellent post, as always, Natalie. :-)

  10. Donald Maass has a great chapter on voice - and the differences between author and character voice - in his latest book, THE FIRE IN FICTION. I highly recommend it.

    Also, Scott Westerfeld is a great example of an author who adapts his voice to match the tone of each book. LEVIATHAN sounds nothing like UGLIES, and yet both voices are perfectly in synch with their books' respective styles.

  11. I think that voice is something you can't worry about; the more you become comfortable and practised, the more you will develop a definite way of noticing your worlds and guiding the reader. Then, even if you're writing as different characters, there will be certain unchangeable aspects of you that come through.

    BTW, Natalie, there's a surprise for you on my blog!

  12. Awww. Thanks for calling me ridiculous! ;) No, really!

  13. This is a great post explaining the different voices in a book.

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