Voice is a confusing aspect of writing because of its inherent vagueness. Many novelists struggle with finding ‘their voice’ or their character’s voice. If we want to better understand what ‘voice’ means in a literary sense, we are going to have to break it down into two more concrete concepts: Narrative Voice and Character Voice.
Your narrative voice is your voice. It’s you, as the author, showing yourself through your prose. It is also, as far as I have figured out, not something you can purposefully create. You can guide it, be conscious of it, and develop (or maybe find) it, but you can’t create it. It is already a part of you. It’s your personality and your thought processes showing
themselves on paper.
I spent my time writing my first and second novels worrying about my narrative voice. Was it interesting? Was it consistent? Was it good enough?
I wasted all that time.
When I started writing my third novel, I started noticing something. It was familiar. It was a different genre than my previous novels. It featured a very different main character. But it seemed familiar. The more I wrote and read it, the more I started realizing why: it had my narrative voice. I didn’t even know I had a narrative voice at that point in my writing journey, but, of course, I did. Everyone has a writing voice. A narrative voice.
Finding my narrative voice wasn’t what I thought it would be. I didn’t go out and create it. I didn’t wake up one morning and know how I was going to do sentence structure for the rest of my writing days. I just kind of realized that I have a tendency to start sentences with conjunctions like “And” or “But”. I realized that I liked using super short sentences (sometimes they’re just phrases) to emphasize a point. Like this. I didn’t find some big, mysterious sector of my brain in which I’d secretly been storing all the riddles of writing well. I just found a few habits, rhythms, and tropes of my own creation that, when put together, created my narrative voice.
It took me two full books to start to find my voice. Don’t force yourself to go out and find yours. Just keep writing.
(And while you’re at it, write different stuff. Branch out. Try different genres and even different mediums. One of the benefits of blogging, for me anyway, is how it helps me develop my narrative voice. Get yourself a little out of your comfort zone, and you’ll find that you learn about yourself, and your voice, a lot faster.)
If you already have an inherently present narrative voice, should you just not worry about it? Should you just let it be itself and try not to think about it so that you don’t risk destroying the illusion?
No. Narrative voice isn’t an illusion. It’s a real thing. And once you’ve found yours, you need to use it. Know what your tendencies are in your prose, and make sure that you include them. On the other hand, you need to be sure that you don’t use them too much. Too much of even the greatest narrative voice can slow down and ultimately ruin a story. Keep yourself honest with your voice, but remember that you’re writing a novel, not a memoir.
Character voice is a little easier to nail down. You characters (all of them) should have different voices. I’m not just talking about poorly-written accents and hard-to-read dialects. Every person sees the world a little differently. A doctor is sees a hospital differently than a young mother who sees it differently than a veteran/grandfather. You character’s “voice” isn’t just how he or she talks, it’s how they view the world.
Finding your characters’ voices
Your characters’ different voices are rooted in their backstory. Their career, their family, and the region they grew up in, will all affect your characters’ voices. However, you don’t need your readers to know your character’s backstory, before you can introduce their voice.
Why? If you walk up to a random someone on and start a conversation with them, are they going to have their own individual voice and personality? Yes. Of course. They don’t have to give you a family history lesson for you to be able to see their individuality.
Your character is the same. In the moment, he should always be himself, and that shouldn’t be changed or better explained by your reader’s knowledge of him or his history.
(Plus, using an interesting voice can be a great way to foreshadow backstory for all your characters.)
How do you find your characters’ voices? Get to know them. I would recommend spending some time writing your character in different situations outside your novel. How do they react? To the setting? To any other people they meet? Maybe take two different characters and walk them through the same scene. How do they see the details of the world around them? What are their differing emotional reactions to identical events? Developing a strong character voice basically means spending time (lots of time) with your character, outside your novel, and your novel’s setting. Of course, spending time with them anywhere helps.
Finally, don’t wait. Just like your narrative voice, character voice is a thing that you can find and develop, so don’t wait to write your novel until you’ve “found it”. You won’t find it until you’re moving forward.