Let’s say you get a text message on your cell phone. If your phone didn’t tell you whose text was coming in, chances are you would recognize who was sending the text if it was someone you knew well. How would you know? By the words used (and their abbreviations), the syntax (the order of the words in the sentence), the grammar, idiom, and rhythms of the sentences (if the text was written in complete sentences). You would recognize the “voice” of the text writer.
Voice in writing develops over time as the writer increases her vocabulary, as she learns to write concisely and vividly, as her worldview changes.
You naturally use different voices in your life, depending on the situation. If you’re talking with your closest friend, you might speak differently from the way you talk to your teacher. You may use language in church differently from the way you use language at a party. With each piece that you write, your voice changes to suit the content of the writing.
A third person narrator’s voice will reflect the tone of the story. Elizabeth Strout opens her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge, this way: For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in the brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy.
In this first long, rhythmic sentence the voice has a poetic quality with the repetition of the word roads and the r sound (rainy roads), as well as the vivid images of snow, rain, and summer roads, and wild raspberries shooting new growth in the brambles.
David Sedaris writes humorous essays, so his voice is much different. In his Me Talk Pretty One Day, he opens a piece titled “Down,” this way: When asked, “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.
Word choice and attitude contribute to humor, and Sedaris is a master of humor.
Each character in a piece of fiction should have her own voice. John Green’s characters tend to sound articulate, intelligent, and outspoken. In his popular novel The Fault in Our Stars, the voice telling the story belongs to Hazel Grace Lancaster. In the first chapter, she describes a meeting of her cancer support group: Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 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 young protagonist, Lily Owens in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd has a voice with a charming Southern flavor: That first week at August’s was a consolation, a pure relief. The world will give you that once in a while, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life. How different from John Green’s character! It’s softer, more poetic and uses a metaphor that compares a boxing-ring timeout to a time when she felt welcomed and peaceful.
Once Ben Affleck was asked how he and Matt Damon worked on the script for Good Will Hunting. He said that he and Matt sketched out what was to happen in a scene. Then, as actors, they improvised the scene. At the end, they wrote down the best lines of the improv, and then started the scene over and improvised again. They did this over and over until they were happy with the scene.
I decided I could do a writing version of that. Before I started writing my novel Games, I put the two main characters in a room and let them talk to each other. The two boys were going to narrate the story in alternating chapters. I wanted each to have a distinctive voice, so that after the reader read the first two chapters, she could open the book anywhere, read a paragraph or two, and know whose chapter it was. Improvising with the characters was extremely helpful for me. I ended up using many of the lines from my improve in the finished novel. I “let go,” and just let them talk.
Try this, yourself, with characters you want to write about. You must do a little work first to have a sense of their personalities, likes and dislikes, passions and attitudes. See the lessons on Character Building, Character Response, and Character Backstory. Turn them loose to stretch and run, and find out who they are.