Troubles with Voice

21 Mar

When I open something I’ve written I expect to know who I’m reading within a few sentences (‘who’ being the narrator or perspective character). If I can’t tell, if I’m struggling to remember, or piece things together, I feel something’s off and get distracted from the story by trying to figure out what’s wrong. Every narrative has a voice, some can be bland and detached, others quirky, but they should try to be unique. ‘Voice’ can be difficult to explain and sometimes hard to pinpoint, but it always makes a difference in what you’re reading.

Voice is one of those things agents always say they’re looking for when describing what they want in manuscripts. In first person narratives it is largely the personality of whoever is narrating the story. In books written in third person, it conveys the author’s attitude towards the work, or what they want the reader to think is their attitude, it could be sarcastic or understanding.

Here are two quotes which illustrate the distinctive voices of their respective works:

“This is a bad land for gods,” said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn’t Friends, Romans, countrymen, but it would do. “You’ve probably all learned that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation….He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. – Jane Austen, Persuasion

American Gods is often detached and unemotional, and I often found it distancing. The voice was the reason I’m still not sure whether or not I liked the book, even though I liked the story. Jane Austen’s voice is satirical, it invites the reader to laugh along and you can almost imagine her winking.

Recently, I’ve started poking a new project with a stick to see if it might be alive, and it’s given some encouraging twitches. I have the world set up, the plot outlined, and the characters waiting with backstories in hand. I just have one big problem, the voice.

If only my main character didn’t sound like Background Teenager #2 from some unmemorable romcom.

‘Come on, Lily,’ I say to the character in my head, like that’ll do any good. ‘How about some more personality?’ And all I get back is a string of curse words, which is not quite how I want to distinguish my new character’s voice. That just feels lazy and like cheating. I should be able to give her something besides a sailor’s mouth to distinguish her narration and make it her own. I should be able to give her distinctive speech patterns, commonly used words, and phrases which mark her apart from other characters and standard ‘teen speak.’ So far it hasn’t really worked.

Mostly I think this is just something I need to work at. I need to write while keeping in mind what should be characteristics of her perspective and speech. Then, when I edit I need to go through line by line to make sure those characteristics are present throughout (not just when I remembered to include them) and the entire narrative has a coherent voice. Sometimes voice comes easyily and naturally and that is always the best. It’s not something that should be forced or it will probably read as inauthentic. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work, though! You still have to find the right patterns and make sure to use them correctly.

Have you had trouble getting the voice right for your WIPs? What did you do to get it right? Let me know in the comments!


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently revising. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.

15 Responses to “Troubles with Voice”

  1. Alli March 21, 2011 at 12:44 AM #

    Thanks for such a timely post, Jenn! I’m doing some stick-poking myself on my WIP and even though I’m almost finished with the outline (for once I’ve done one and it is helpful. I think my pantsing days are done. Gasp!), but I’m not ready to start because I can’t find that voice. The one I’m tempted to go with with is similar to my last ms, but I don’t want to do that–they are different chracters so they need different voices. So I’ll have to keep playing until I find that elusive voice. Like a lot of agents and editors say, “I’ll know it when I see it”.

    I’ve been turned off books purely because a voice didn’t grab me. And I’ve stuck with books because of the voice, even though the plot may not have been as engaging as I wanted. I guess it goes to show how important that voice needs to be, even though it’s so hard for a writer to find at times.

    Good luck with your Lily!

    • jenn fitzgerald March 21, 2011 at 3:16 PM #

      I think my pantsing days are done too, it’s such a change! And I’ve also had that experience where the voice in some books has been totally off-putting I haven’t wanted to read them even when the stories sounded interesting. Good luck on finding the right voice for your WIP, it’s annoying when it’s so tough!

  2. Julie Eshbaugh March 21, 2011 at 6:37 AM #

    Great post Jenn! I think we all beg our characters to speak to us in their own unique voice. And I loved the PERSUASION example! ❤

    • jenn fitzgerald March 21, 2011 at 3:16 PM #

      Thanks Julie!

  3. Rowenna March 21, 2011 at 9:40 AM #

    Great post! I’ve been worrying about voice a little in my latest project, so this is very timely. Can I share that I’m a complete geek and also talk to my characters to learn their voices? Maybe Lily just needs some more time to open up and get past the cursing stage. Try giving her chocolate–and since she’s in your head you’re going to need to eat it for her 🙂

    • jenn fitzgerald March 21, 2011 at 3:20 PM #

      Hahaha, I love the chocolate idea, it sounds perfect!

  4. Lori M. Lee March 21, 2011 at 11:56 AM #

    I actually really liked Shadow’s voice. He was very controlled and distant, which made the little moments where he did break down that much more emotional. I do agree though that I couldn’t relate to him, but that wasn’t a problem for me b/c the world was so rich that I didn’t even mind.

    • jenn fitzgerald March 21, 2011 at 3:24 PM #

      In reading people’s responses to American Gods I’ve noticed that some people really like Shadow’s voice and the distance, and others (like me) find it off-putting, and it comes across as a big split between readers. With such a rich world Shadow’s voice was a huge contrast, and it just wasn’t what I was looking for, which I think has a lot to do what I personally look for in books. It’s cool that something can be generally agreed to have a good story with interesting characters and be well written but still evoke such different reactions from people!

  5. kaemccrae March 21, 2011 at 2:14 PM #

    I don’t think that voice is really something that can be developed by itself.
    More, if a character is fully rounded, they’ll have a voice to speak in – if it’s the wrong voice, or an annoying voice, etc, then I think the problem lies in the character’s pre-novel development, not in the author themselves. : )

    But I also do a LOT of prenovel characterization. Scenes upon scenes of moments in their history that’ll NEVER be included in the story itself, descriptions, character-head building, first person accounts of what they think of other characters, and so on. So my characters aren’t just being born at the beginning of the story – I HAVE found that whenever I just launch into the beginning of the story without sitting down and mapping out the character first that they wind up with an out-of-control-roller-coaster-voice. In that, I’m just learning them, and they’re just learning themselves, and oh-my-god they’re flying off the tracks into a whole nother mindset…
    Say goodbye to voice #1, cause they just died a very loopy death.

    Also, I think that characters can have their voices on display just as much in third person as in first, when it’s limited. Sometimes more, because there’s just that teensiest bit of narrative that’s watching them rather than in their head, and that puts all their thoughts into context – so the voice comes across more clearly than in first.

    It’s really hard to find stories where multiple first person views don’t sort of…glom onto one another. Dx Though it’s lovely when you can. : D Like Across the Universe.

    But I’m SO happy you mentioned Austen’s satire. I tell every friend I have who hasn’t read a proper amount of Jane (BILJANA // cough) that they just have to go back and read it with irony/satire. Ahhh, I love her for it.
    (This is going to be long when I post it, isn’t it? Sorreeee)

    • jenn fitzgerald March 21, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

      Long responses are great, no need to apologize! I do think extensive pre-novel characterization is the best way to nail down characters and get a complete handle on their history and voice. It can be hard to not start writing sooner though, and that’s a problem I have, I want to jump into things and get the story started.

      I agree that you can have a lot of a character’s voice in third person limited, but you also have the author’s voice there, in even the little bits of narration, and like you said it provides the context for the character, but it can also color the narrative a certain way.

  6. Najela Cobb March 21, 2011 at 4:51 PM #

    I tried changing the point of view. Some of my stories don’t really work in first person, while others are great.I also freewrite and just let the words flow (see what I did there. lol.). If she cusses a lot, just let her do it, you can always revise later or maybe you’ll find that she only cusses in certain situations and perhaps the plot makes her into a different person. I’d say keep writing, voice will come as you keep pushing forward.

  7. Najela Cobb March 21, 2011 at 4:51 PM #

    I tried changing the point of view. Some of my stories don’t really work in first person, while others are great.I also freewrite and just let the words flow (see what I did there. lol.). If she cusses a lot, just let her do it, you can always revise later or maybe you’ll find that she only cusses in certain situations and perhaps the plot makes her into a different person. I’d say keep writing, voice will come as you keep pushing forward. Good luck. =)

  8. cgmason March 21, 2011 at 6:06 PM #

    Great post!

    • jenn fitzgerald March 23, 2011 at 12:19 AM #

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!


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