Saturday, February 06, 2010

Technical Topic -- What is 'voice'?

This is another of those bits of writing that I posted elsewhere and decided to drag up here to my lair,
just on the chance it might be useful to someone.

Looking at Voice.
Not saying anything about how to write voice just here and now  . . .
But looking at 'What is voice?'

When an author has a strong 'voice' you can flick the book open anywhere and the vocabulary choices, pacing, cadence, imagery and so on tell you that you have a Dorothy Dunnett in your hand as opposed to a Wodehouse or an Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers or Wilkie Collins.

These writers have a recognizable 'voice'. It is found everywhere in the book, in all character POVs.

Now, just to be confusing, we use the same word -- 'voice' -- when we talk about aspects of characterization.

Each character in a good work of fiction has a distinct voice in dialog. That's his 'voice'.
The same dialog 'voice' is found in the POV character's internals.

In POV we are also immersed in the POV character's distinct worldview and beliefs, the character's physicality, observations, memory, knowledge, and the character's emotional reactions.

These attitudes and motives are also part of the character's 'voice'.

A 'Narrator' may be added to a story as a distinct character. In this case, the Narrator will also have a distinct voice.
As a general rule, none of the character voices -- not even the Narrator --represents the author talking to the audience. A Narrator is just as much a fictional creation as Peter Rabbit.

So ...

-- An author's 'voice' is how the author writes every part of the story. Stephen King's voice or Emile Loring's voice.

-- Character 'voice' belongs to each fictive creation -- Heathcliffe or Eliza Dolittle or Sinbad the Sailor's voice. This character voice is found in (a) dialog, (b) the language of internals, (c) the constellation of belief, motive, and emotional response that is the character persona.

image attribution josephthornley


  1. Anonymous8:20 AM

    I really enjoyed this post's contents as well as its choices for 'voice'.
    We adopted a golden retriever and renamed him Bertie; because, despite his aristocratic looks, he's probably thinking of eating 'the old e. and b." or in his case k. and b. because of,
    "What's the word for it, Jeeves?"
    "Nourishment, Sir."
    Ah, Wodehouse. His voice. Bertie's voice. Jeeves's voice. And who can forget, Aunt Dahlia's VOICE.

  2. @ Anon --

    k and b

    heh heh

    Wodehouse apparently wrote all his scenes out on little notes and set them on a big board, plotting everything out meticulously beforehand.

    Very strong comedic voice. Dave Barry, Woody Allen, Bramah, Zelazny are other great examples. The comedic writers are great inspiration for developing distinct character voice.