One of the running jokes we have as writers is the compliment, “Oh, I just love your voice.”
You’d be surprised how common it is.
The reason why it’s funny is that voice is one of the things that is actually the least work. In fact, it happens without us intending it to.
Well, authorial voice does. Let’s start by saying that there are at least three kinds of voice at play in any piece of fiction. They all compete for attention, and some are best emphasized in certain situations, best minimized in others.
The main three kinds of voice you’ll find in fiction are authorial voice, narrative voice, and character voice. That’s in order from biggest to littlest.
Authorial voice, if you let it, will just saturate your writing without you thinking too much about it. It incorporates your view of the world, as well as every novel, film, or television show you’ve ever been exposed to. It also incorporates that weird little nugget of unexplainable that we call the self. It includes your political and personal views, your attitude toward other people, your experience of romance, everything. And it bleeds through into your writing without you meaning to put it there.
If you’re trying to add authorial voice, you’re probably doing it wrong, in my opinion. The best way to increase the amount of your voice that appears in your writing is to write as freely as you can, and edit as little as possible.
This is what people talk about when they say that too much editing “kills voice.”
The reason this happens is because putting a lot of your voice into a piece of writing is scary. It’s scary because the more of your voice that’s in it, the less generic it is, and the greater the chance that you’re going to alienate some people. Also, too much authorial voice can put the spotlight on the author instead of on the story, and that’s no good, is it? That only serves the ego, not the reader.
My writing tends to be really, really voicey. Tons of voice. I usually have to smooth that out in service of the story.
Narrative voice is different; it’s the voice of the particular story that you’re writing. This sets the tone of the story, and is the source of thematic elements.
You know, for those of us who let theme happen. There’s a couple of schools of thought on theme, but that’s for a different post.
So what kind of story you’re writing, the type of feeling that you hope to evoke in the reader, the setting; all of these things determine narrative voice and also are determined by narrative voice. The author has a great deal more control over this kind of thing, and it’s less a victim of the editing process. I think of narrative voice as a kind of verbal bonsai; knowing what to nurture and what to cut away is vital in establishing good, coherent narrative voice. How do you learn that? You learn it from reading fiction and from writing. I don’t think there are any real shortcuts here.
Character voice is the result of well-developed characters. It really shines in dialogue, but also appears in close point-of-view exposition. It can be difficult to keep straight in a piece with many points of view; especially if one character tends to be more overbearing than the others, or if you know one better than you know the others, or if one character’s voice is a little closer to your own voice.The project I’m working on currently had a point at which two characters got muddled and one got taken over by the other. Some delicate revision was needed to get them sorted out without flattening everything.
For the average reader, all of these things combine together into a single thing; a ghost named “Voice.” The spirit of the thing. And that’s the way it should be. Voice is essential in good fiction, because that’s where we connect with readers. If you like that spirit, then that’s great, because we’ve done our job.