My boyfriend and I recently drove from Columbus, Ohio to Princeton, NJ and back. In the gaps between Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, The Clash, Twisted Sister, and various others, we listened to A LOT of NPR talk radio. Deprived of the visual accompaniments afforded by TV news, the way in which the news was delivered mattered. It wasn’t just some airbrushed, pantsuit-clad woman sitting behind a news desk as images of bloody car accidents and struggling schools flashed across the screen. I listened to a report of the Navy Yard shooting and a music review within half an hour of each other, and I could tell the difference in subject matter from the get go.
All I could think about was Voice.
Voice is the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character; or
Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. 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.
As a writer, I’ve spent a large amount of time constructing my characters and getting to know them. Recently, I’ve come to realize that even a wonderfully developed character can fall flat with the wrong voice. Also, just as a poor voice can be detrimental, a quality voice can be redeeming. I remember reading a book a few months ago that was terribly predictable with a formulaic story line and stock characters. However, the voice of the narrator was so spot on, so acutely accurate, that I really enjoyed it.
My current project, G4, is narrated in the first person by Mirella, a drama nerd in her senior year of high school. She’s a bit off beat, loves old movies, and is dying to live a little. Getting the voice right is crucial not only to her character, but to the story as a whole.
For example, Mirella is snarky and smart but she doesn’t sound like she is doing a voice over for National Geographic when she describes her peers and the world around her. That doesn’t mean she can’t use “big words” or has to narrate in slang. (although she could). What it does mean is that the words fit and flow consistently with her character and mood. Mirella absolutely uses words like scampered, compares her classmates to lost kids in the grocery store, and occasionally uses extreme punctuation for emphasis.
To be honest, finding Mirella’s voice was both easy and hard. I know her, so I know what I am trying for, but actually getting it on the paper isn’t always easy. Keeping the voice consistent is even harder. Sometimes I have to read what I’ve written out loud to really get a feel for what it sounds like (or doesn’t). Other times, I know as my pen slides across the page that the words are perfect. Still other times, my CP’s have to point out things that slipped through.
Take away from all that rambling? Experiment and find the voice that works for your character and your story. Then, keep it up. Use your skills and your (beta) readers to help.