12 January 2013

From NYT bestselling author Dave Farland:

Many authors write tales where every character sounds the same. Everyone in their stories seems to be college educated, just like the author, and everyone seems to come from the same area as the author. That can be a real weakness in your story.

If your characters don’t have different voices, your story will never come to life. It’s so important, that recently while looking at the websites of several agents, I noticed that about half of them mentioned “voice” as the first thing that they look for when judging a tale, and I have to admit that when I pick up a story with a good strong voice, I instantly breathe a sigh of relief, feeling that I’m in the hands of a real pro.

. . . .

So give each character in your story a distinctive voice. You don’t have to be in-your-face about it. The distinctions might be slight. For example, two neighbor boys, even though they are the best of friends, might use slightly different slang. One might say “whoa” when an alien ship crashes into the woods, while the other says “awesome.”

One technique that I find helpful is at the end of each story, I go through in editing and make a “dialog pass.” If I have a character, Bron, I will search for instances of “Bron said” so that I can pinpoint his scenes and make sure that his dialog sounds like it is coming from him. This needs to extend beyond the level of just dialog. It might force me to ask questions like, “Is this what Bron would really say in this situation? Is that how he would say it? Would he really think that? Is this how he would react? Is this what he would notice?” In other words, part of editing his voice is also to reexamine every aspect of him as a character.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

11 Comments to “Voice”

  1. Varying voice is one of the marks of a master. I struggle with this aspect of craft, particularly in the medieval setting I love. How would a 14th C peasant’s speech patterns differ from those of a character one rung above? Would a merchant’s word choices be much different than a noble’s, and in what way? Without much literature, and no audio, I can only make a best guess. But to vary in some way is necessary.

  2. The british bbc accents audio collection is one of my secret weapons.

  3. I interpret “voice” as something entirely different. Giving characters different voices is part of characterization. But author “voice” is that weirdly indefinable thing like porn–you can’t define it but you know it when you see it. Jane Austin’s “voice” is different than Dickens’ “voice” which is different from Chandler’s “voice” which is different than King’s “voice”. It’s the overall combination of style, structure, word choice, etc. that is as unique as a fingerprint to each writer.

    • Well said. I clicked through to Farland’s article, and it made a little more sense in context, but I also distinguish between these two things. Agreed that a writer must be attuned to the accents, vocabulary choice, rhythms, choice of what is said and what is suppressed, and so on of her chracters.

      But my understanding of author voice is that it’s impossible for the writer to ever feel the full effect of her voice on the reader. The shock of otherness is missing. So a perceptive writer might know a lot about her own voice and it’s nuances, but still not really know what it is.

      Fans have told me that I have a strong voice, but I don’t really know what that means. The language I chose is carefully selected, but – still – it tends simply to reflect how I think about things and how I communicate them. I was somewhat astonished to be informed my voice is strong.

    • Pretty much what I was thinking. When an agent says they are looking for a strong voice in writing, they usually mean the authors, not the characters. But yes, good writing has good character “voice” too.

      But it is the author’s unique voice that tends to sell the story, all other factors being equal.

  4. Agree with Kat–author voice is separate from character voice.

    Also agree that this is difficult, especially for authors who do not live around people who speak differently than they do.

    One author I think is particularly good at giving characters distinctive voices is Joanna Bourne (Spymaster’s Lady & sequels). All characters speak in English, but the French characters structure their sentences differently than the English characters. You can make a rough guess at where a character originates from (country & social class) as soon as that character opens his or her mouth.

  5. In terms of character voice, we can’t know for sure how a medieval peasant or lord spoke. We do know the society was heavily class-bound, and reading / watching good historical fiction that represents different social classes can give us a sense of how that differed that we can use in any similar setting.

    Context is an important part of all dialogue. The same general conversation will be quite differently handled depending on whether a mother and son are speaking, or two old friends, strangers in a bar, or a bootblack and a bishop. So it’s not just the general language people use, but also the way they express themselves in a particular context that would differ if they had the same conversation with someone else.

  6. So true. Character voice and author voice are very different, which is a big reason why I love writing in multiple POVs. I love the practice and challenge of creating the external and internal feel of each character while jumping in and out of my writing narrative. I usually have at least one character who is a bit sarcastic, if not during personal exchanges then during inner monologues. But then I go for various personalities with manners of speech. Some formal, some very casual. I always write children with simple vocabulary, even their narration. While I make sure pompous or over educated adults have an expanded vocabulary throughout. Grammar goes a long way in effecting voice. Does your character speak in run-on sentences, or do that only because they’re high? Etc…

    As for my impact on my readers…

    I remember after I wrote one of my paramedic short stories in first person that everyone commented on the character’s extreme snarky and sarcastic voice, about everything. They liked it and said how easy it was to feel the sarcasm in the opening sentences. I don’t usually write that sarcastically. I save it for special occasions. :o)

  7. I’ve read some urban fantasy/paranormal (almost invariably first-person where voice is crucial) where voice isn’t very distinguishable at all from one book to the next – even with different narrators.

    It’s even worse when an author uses multiple narrators *within* the same book. I can think of one author of a bestselling trilogy with multiple narrators where many of the main criticisms all centered around not being able to distinguish which character was narrating from one chapter to the next – and this includes different gender characters.

    I think Anne Rice did a great job creating distinct voices for Louis and Lestat in “Interview With The Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat”. Those two would never be mistaken for one another.

    But I do think it’s especially hard in a first-person account to accomplish this – because as others have noted the author’s own voice begins to intrude and influence or dominate the narrative – and drive away the distinctions that might have made the character’s voice more unique.

  8. And then there’s the example of Ernest Hemingway. I’m reading his The Sun also Rises & am amazed how one of his women — Brett — sounds like a man. (The other women characters I’ve encountered so far don’t say enough or appear in a passage for this flaw to appear.)

    ISTR being told about this glaring flaw in Hemingway as far back as high school, though. Still amazed to encounter it for myself.

  9. Voice (both author and character voices) is something I really love, and find pretty easy to do, but that may be partly because I come from a film background. I think I’ve learned a lot from the nuance of great actors.

    I cast my characters, and generally I hear a voice quality — not just a cadence, but resonance and pitch. I don’t try to describe what I hear. I just find that by imagining a character having a literal voice, word choices naturally follow.

    It can be … interesting when I realize that my 19th century overseer has the voice of Humphrey Bogart. Except that I don’t write the accent, so it still works.

    The most fun I have, though, is with my Starling and Marquette scenes, because the main characters have very different voices, but they are both prone to mimic each other. (And other people too.)

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