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Do You Hear Voices? Refining Your Authorial Style
by Victoria Grossack
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July 5, 2012
This can be irritating, especially when the voice is speaking imperfect English (I spend a lot of time with people who don't have English as their first language). Sometimes it's simply annoying, because I feel as if this other personality is dominating mine and I don't want it to. On the other hand, for my writing, this "hearing of voices" has advantages. Dialogue and internal thoughts come far more easily. I can also hear the rest of the language for my story -- and as writing is written in words, this is very helpful.
But voice in literature implies a great deal more than just hearing voices, although hearing voices may help you establish a literary voice. What, exactly, is a literary voice?
First of all, let me say that voice is not person. Person refers to how the story is told, such as first, second or various degrees of third. How you go about creating a voice is strongly influenced by the person in which you write, but voice and person are different.
So, we know a little about what voice is not. What is it? As there's little merit in re-inventing definitions, here are a few already put together by others:
Voice refers to the controlling presence or "authorial voice" behind the characters, narrators, and personae of literature. It is also described as the implied author. The particular qualities of the author's voice are manifested by her or his method of expression (an ironic narrator, a lyric persona), specific language, and so forth. (The above can be found at http://web.uvic.ca/wguide/Pages/LTVoice.html, a site maintained by the University of Victoria in Canada.)
Definition: Voice has two meanings as it concerns creative writers:
Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing. (The above comes from http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/glossary/g/voice.htm.) I would extend this definition to consider also applying the term Voice to characters, even when you're not writing in first person. A well-developed character can also have a voice. Even though this may not meet the technical, far-reaching definitions that we've seen above, many of the techniques that apply to developing your voice as a narrator can also be applied to developing the voices and personalities and styles of your characters.
Voice is an elusive quality, almost as difficult to define as style is in fashion. It should become clearer if you see (hear) it. So here are some examples:
Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age:
"Their costumes, as to architecture, were the latest fashion intensified; they were rainbow-hued; they were hung with jewels--chiefly diamonds. It would have been plain to any eye that it had cost something to upholster these women."When I read these sentences, I can hear the voice of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens): his ironic American twang, the not-so-cultured yet very intelligent drawl. The echoes in my brain are partly due to the fact that I've seen Samuel Clemens portrayed in various shows -- both on the stage and on television -- but they are also due to his unique style.
Amy Tan, in The Kitchen God's Wife:
"She was referring to the old beggar shoe-mender who walked from door to door, whose breath and body smelled as bad as the old shoes he fixed and tried to sell. I think all the mothers in our village threatened to marry their daughters to Old Shoe Stink. And those daughters must have obeyed. Otherwise, Old Shoe Stink would have had twenty wives!"Can't you hear the accents of the immigrant Chinese woman, who has learned English but whose thoughts and choice of words are still colored by her original home?
Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:
"It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog."Haddon is writing a first-person novel in which the narrator is an autistic boy. The autism may not be so clear in the sentences given above, but I believe the fact that the narrator is a boy comes through loud and clear.
How It's Done
All right, so we've gone through a few examples. But how is it done?
These three are different in origin. Mark Twain's voice is almost certainly his own; that is, the same voice, albeit with some variation, can be found in the vast majority of his literature. With respect to Amy Tan, she spent a lot of time with people who emigrated from China and have English as their second language. So although the voice may not be exactly her own -- there are many passages in her books that are not written in this particular dialect -- it is certainly something she knows well. So she has to listen carefully and use the voice that she has heard so often. As for Mark Haddon, he has a lot of experience writing for children, if not portraying them.
But let's take a look at some of the details and how they make these voices different.
Mark Twain uses the word "upholstered" to refer to women's dress. As the word is usually applied to furniture, his use of this word is just a bit derogatory, as well as delightfully descriptive.
Amy Tan's character uses the word "beggar" and "village." Now, although these words are common enough in that everyone understands them, they are not used so often, at least not in the United States. "Homeless" is more frequently applied than "beggar;" "town" or "small town" are things we hear instead of "village." The word "village," at least in the US, refers to a particular section of New York City.
Mark Haddon deliberately writes "7" instead of "seven." Both the autism (obsession with numerical accuracy) and the youth of the narrator (the narrator might not realize that lower numerals are usually written out in prose) make this approach logical.
Mark Twain's "the latest fashion intensified" is not a phrase most writers would use, but I can hear his voice uttering it.
Amy Tan's "Old Shoe Stink" conveys a voice (and a smell) that makes one think of a different place and time.
Mark Haddon: "the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream" -- this is a lovely detail, showing the remarkable observational quality of the narrator.
Mark Twain: longer than one sees today, partly because he wrote in the 19th century, when longer sentences were more common.
Amy Tan: Chinese-immigrant dialect -- often there are no articles.
Mark Haddon's narrator: He uses a simple structure befitting a youthful writer.
What They Write About:
Mark Twain: often mocks the values that people took for granted, such as dressing well. The morsel, "mostly diamonds" is choice because diamonds are often generally accepted as the most expensive gem.
Amy Tan: the relationship between mothers and daughters -- a strong theme in her book (and in many of her books). Also, in the Western world, we have not so many instances of beggars going from house to house, even those offering services.
Mark Haddon's character: very matter-of-fact, exactly what he sees. In addition, he chooses to write about the murder of a dog, something which adults might not consider worth their time. The combination of word choice, phrase creation, sentence structure and what they write about somehow create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts -- the voice.
How to Improve Your Voice(s)
Get To Know Your Narrators And Your Characters. You need to have a perspective to portray; you should have something to say. This should influence the vocabulary you choose, how you put your phrases and sentences together, and naturally, what you write about. If you are just trying to be yourself, ask yourself if you have a particular attitude that you want to become clear through your writing.
Listen To People Speaking, Particularly Those You Want To Represent. This may not be possible, as your characters may not be alive -- for example many of my stories are set in Bronze Age Greece, and it's not so easy to resurrect people from that time period. On the other hand, I can read works that are closer to that time period -- for example, Homer's The Iliad -- and adapt the language for my own uses. So if you're writing for children, you should listen to children. Not only should you listen to what they actually say, you should try to discover what they like to say (fun words, for example, beginning with crazy letters like z, or q, or b as well as nonsensical rhymes, such as "cuddly-wuddly" and "Humpty-Dumpty").
Listen To Audio Books. One of the advantages of this method is that you can slow it down and ponder particular passages. In conversations, especially when you are expected to give an answer to something, you can't always take time to attend to the finer details.
When You're Ready, Read Your Writing Aloud. This is a good exercise for plenty of other reasons -- for example it can help you catch mistakes -- but it will also help you hear the voice that you have developed.
If You Can Bear It, Have Someone Else Read Your Writing Aloud. I suggest you don't try this until you've read it aloud yourself. However, you can pick up a lot this way, and you can certainly listen with greater concentration. Hint: this works best if you find someone who is good at reading aloud, someone who likes reading aloud. Check out your local drama groups for resources.
Read Other Voices. It never hurts to see how other writers manage the challenge of creating voices. Here are some pieces you might read:
Again, consider reading these aloud, so that you hear the rhythm of the language.
Thanks for listening to my voice as I rant on about voice. May you keep on reading, on keep listening, and keep on writing.
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.