We can distinguish our friends and family by voice, and we know when we hear a stranger’s voice. But what makes a distinctive voice in writing?
Writers are repeatedly advised to develop a strong voice, but how, exactly? Voice in writing is a mix of so many things: word choice (diction), register (formality), sentence length, the proportion of dialogue versus exposition… every possible aspect of writing craft. The sum choices of an author gel to produce both sheen and substance.
This unique mix makes voice a complex matter. Regardless of how an author gets there, a strong voice is recognizable and consistent.
We can distinguish our friends and family by voice, and we know when we hear a stranger’s voice. Voices can be high, low, gravely, timid, breathy, grating, lyrical. Words can be uttered fast, slow, staccato, or in a cadence that reflects a regional dialect or a speech impediment, such as stuttering.
Voices in writing enjoy their own peculiarities. Each character’s voice plumbs their life experiences and fundamental attributes, like personality, level of education, and role in society.
Developing a singular voice as an author — and for each character — is often a struggle. One thing that helps is reading widely.
Take a fresh look at “voice in action.” Sidle up to your bookcase, grab a chair at the library or look online at free book samples (often the first chapters are available). Identify voices you love and try to triangulate their essence.
You don’t have to read whole books. Strong voices pervade every paragraph, every sentence — like tasting new ice-cream flavors from a tiny sample spoon.
Here are eleven voices found in divergent books to compare and contrast.
Flowers for Algernon
The first voice is extremely unusual and distinct. It belongs to Charlie, a grown man who is mentally impaired. Here is the opening of Flowers for Algernon:
Mr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and remembir and every thing that happins to me from now on. I don’t know why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.
Charlie’s diary is riddled with misspellings and he uses a childlike tone. The concept of voice — and its ability to radically change — is central to the development of his story. As Charlie gains intelligence as part of a medical experiment, his spelling irons out, he gains vocabulary and sophistication of thought. By the peak of his transformation he writes like a Harvard professor.
Plato’s Republic uses language that is objective and formal.
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light…
We all recognize this kind of dry but effective style of authoritative writing. It defines high-quality, serious nonfiction, like philosophy, but is the anathema of fiction.
On to poetic prose, of which John Gardner is a master. Here is the voice of the monster in his book, Grendel.
The doe in the clearing goes stiff at the sight of my horridness, then remembers her legs and is gone. It makes me cross. “Blind prejudice!” I bawl at the splintered sunlight where half a second ago she stood. I wring my fingers, put on a long face. ”Ah, the unfairness of everything,” I say and shake my head.
Gardner makes his monster a poet.
Gardner wisely chose to mirror the style of language used in Beowulf, the earliest known work in Old English, and the original story of Grendel. Voice is always shaped by time and place. Looking back in time, we can see such changes in language in the order and types of words used. The opening of Oliver Twist is a classic example.
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
The Masque of the Red Death
Archaic language is equally obvious in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, the father of modern horror writing. This is an excerpt from The Masque of the Red Death, published in 1842.
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions…
The description of waltzers is a clue this text is from the past, along with the punctuation and phrases like “perforce ceased their evolutions.” Few would brave writing a sentence like this today. This is just the very start of a huge sentence which continues on and on in chunks bolted together with semicolon rivets.
On to a book that helped define a new genre by the modern master of horror. The Poe quote above is found at the start of Stephen King’s book The Stand. In sharp contrast to Poe, King’s writing is marked by short sentences, direct talk, and hip vocabulary. There is a curse word in the opening line, a big clue this book is modern and is of an informal register. This mix gives King a fresh, edgy, everyman feel.
Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer.
The Sorcerer’s Stone
One of the most famous series of books of all time makes excellent use of local language. The Harry Potter books are wonderfully British thanks to the use of words and phrases like Dursley, Privet Drive, thank you very much, and “didn’t hold.” So starts the tale of the century:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
The Gold Finch
Literary fiction leans towards figurative language, describes more complex ideas, and deploys more sophisticated and varied vocabulary. Here’s the opening of The Gold Finch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which is full of long sentences, unapologetically extended with colons, and words like scrambled, floundered, clangor, and inwrought.
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom.
The Satanic Verses
Another Pulitzer Prize winner, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is full of unusual language uttered by a man plummeting to earth from an airplane.
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho Ji! Ho Ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun!”
Rushdie’s clipped, poetic sentences are brimming with references to Indian culture and Hindi vocabulary (“Impromptu gazal, Ohe, Salad baba, bhai!”). His vocabulary is sophisticated (sardonic, fastidious, levity, heraldic) and he excels at imaginative descriptions: “The aircraft cracked in half, a seed pod giving up its spores.”
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
It is equally possible to craft a memorable voice using commonplace language. One of the most famous and accomplished living writers is Japan’s Haruki Murakami. His sentences are short and built from a basic adult vocabulary. It is conversational in nature yet immediately noticeable as something different. Here is the opening of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?
Me Before You
Here is another straightforward voice. The focus of the heroine from the romantic bestseller Me Before You is the real world and everyday life. Her words are chosen to make her easy to relate to and appealing. The book opens with her saying:
There are 158 footsteps between the bus stop and home, but it can stretch to 180 if you aren’t in a hurry, like maybe if you’re wearing platform shoes. I turned the corner onto our street (68 steps), and could just see the house—a four-bedroom semi in a row of other three- and four-bedroom semis. Dad’s car was outside, which meant he had not left for work.
The list goes on and on and on. Pick a range of books to read and think carefully about what flavors the voice. To get maximum benefit, read vastly different books in terms of genres, time periods, and authors. Can you put your finger on what defines their voices?