Monday, January 21, 2013

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What is voice?



So, I've heard a lot of talk about voice out there in cyber space. It's one of the biggest things agents and editors look for in writing. But, surprisingly enough, I've never seen anyone break it down in super simple terms. Sure, it's subjective. Sure, there is absolutely no way to explain what "good" voice is.

But what IS voice? Honestly, it's pretty damn simple.

Voice, simply put, is your character's personality coming through your writing.

That's it.

Personality.

Which also explains why it's impossible to pin point what makes great voice, and also explains why it's so incredibly subjective. Is there a single person in the entire universe that EVERY ONE ON EARTH loves? Nope. Sorry, guys. Even the coolest of cool, the funest, nicest, bestest people in the world annoy some people. That's life.  And that's what makes voice hard to nail. So, I'm not going to try to explain what good voice is, I'm just going to give some details on what, exactly, it is.




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Every character has quirks, has a way of talking, a way of thinking. This will change based on a whole host of things. Things like, age, gender, where they grew up and where they live now, the time period they live in, the people they know, the people they look up to. Getting a little more specific: Things like confidence, desires, sense of humor, a desire to be liked. And don't forget about slang and dialect. If you're writing about a member of a NYC gang, is he going to speak in complete sentences? Probably not. Is he going to say things like "Golly gee wilikers"? Only if he's making fun of someone else. If you're writing a teenager, is she going to use big SAT words? Maybe if she's obsessed with getting into a great college. Most teenagers? Not so much.

Below are some example of voice. Not necessarily the best. Some of these are better than others, they are just to get an idea of the differences.


"First, I had to decide if it was possible that what Jacob had said about the Cullens could be true. Immediately my mind responded with a resounding negative. It was silly and morbid to entertain such ridiculous notions." Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.



"Even more surprising is that Miss Moore wants to know what we think about art. She means to have us talk and risk giving our opinion instead of making painstaking copies of cheery fruit. This throws the sheep into complete confusion." A Great And Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


"...Partrick always asked if anyone wanted to share. And then began the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning. To be fair to Patrick, he let us talk about dying, too. But most of them weren't dying. Most would live into adulthood, as Patrick had.  (Which meant there was quite a lot of competitveness about it, with everybody wanting to beat not only cancer itself, but also the other people in the room. Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say,  20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that's one in five... so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.)" The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

Tell me something. Could a single one of those characters start narrating another's stories? Would you notice? If Hazel (of The Fault In Our Stars) jumped into Twilight and started telling the story, would it sound the same? Um, hell no.

So ask yourself the same question, if you dropped your main character into another story and had them tell it-- could you tell? REALLY tell? Hopefully the answer is yes, and hopefully it's not because the character you are replacing is more interesting.


I will also mention that voice is not limited to first person. There is A LOT of first person YA out there, and since that's 90% of what I read, those were the easiest examples to give. But you can, and should, have voice in third person as well. Here are a few good examples of third person voice:

"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." Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.

"The mother of our particular Hobbit-- what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off." The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.


This biggest difference, I'd say, between voice in first person and third person is style.  Third person voice tends to get mixed and mingled with the authors style-- which is, more or less, the writers personality/style coming through the writing (as opposed to the character's). Especially in the Hobbit example, it's hard to tell what's voice and what's style. How much of the personality of that excerpt is Bilbo Baggins, and how much is Tolkien? The answer isn't as important as it is to realize there is some overlap.


Another fun thing to compare is different novels (or any writing) by the same author. Voice should be different, as long as it's a different character.  If a writer is skilled at voice, you still won't be able to insert one character for another. But style can, and often should, stay the same.



Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I don't teach writing, I don't have a degree in literature or English. The God's honest truth is the only writing class I've ever taken was Writing For Media (which has nothing to do with fiction) so don't take all of this as fact. This is my opinion and if you disagree with me, feel free to say so. I'd love to hear another's view.




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