The author S.A. Joo's Writing & Editing Advice & Tips

A professional Editor and YA Writer, represented by Black Hawk Literary Agency.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Voice in Fiction (Creative Writing)

Voice. We’re all familiar with this term. We’ve often heard agents and publishers describe a book by saying: “It had a great voice.” or “The voice was easy to relate to.” So it’s fair to say that the voice is one of the most important factor in fiction. But what is it exactly? Voice is a style of writing which conveys the narrator's attitude, personality, and character. Basically, it’s a persona of a writer.
One must ask. Does voice really matter if the plot is fantastic? My answer? Yes, because those two are not mutually exclusive. Let me explain. There are two types of fiction: character driven and plot driven. I’m aware they’re more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it simple. 
The voice (character) driven books make readers feel, hear, and empathize with the character in the most intimate way. Some readers can get so engrossed in the book and imagine themselves as the character. These books don’t necessarily offer the most thrilling, intertwined plot ever written, but it was the voice made it a good read. In these instances, the writing style or the voice will make or break the book. 
However, one could go over the edge with voice. This is when the writer injects too much of their own instead of making it the character’s. And in worse cases, all the characters end up having the similar voices. Remember. There’s a fine line one must not cross. Fiction isn’t about you. It’s fantasy full of realistic but fake characters. Sure, it’s important to make them feel real. Just don’t make them sound like you. All the time. In all of your books. 
Next. The plot driven books. This can be tricky. Writers could argue that their books are all about the great plot, and no other fluff was necessary. But is it great writing when there’s a lack of voice? Will readers continue to read if the story is told in such a boring way that all the characters appear flat and one-dimensional? 
I must admit that I’ve read tons of books which were badly written just to find out the ending. Of course, I got stabby about it afterward. The premise was fresh, the plot was tight, and the potential was clearly there. Yet, the writer had such a passive voice that the book came off as bland and boring. What a disappointment. What a missed opportunity.
The obvious conclusion. Voice is sacred in all fiction regardless of genre. It’s what makes the readers read beyond the jacket flap. So stop being so passive in your writing. Think and apply the five senses. Make your writing vividly active. Most importantly, be passionate, so others can be passionate about reading it. 

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  1. Voice is the character's voice, not the author's. Each character should have his or her own voice if the novel is narrated by multiple characters. Voice by and of itself is very difficult--something that the author has to work at perfecting. Voice,on other hand, can also mean narrative point of view--who is narrating the story and from what viewpoint. Is the narration close or distant. Are we seeing,hearing,tasting,smelling the world through the character's eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, hands, skin. Are we feeling his/her emotions or is everything coming from the author's viewpoint? First person is safe but first person is difficult. Omniscient is actually the author. What POV are you using? Are you experimenting, trying to perfect your character's voice? You should be.

  2. Great post! The ever elusive voice @_@ Two novels later and I still don't know if I've got it down xD

  3. Excellent, Voice is one of those things that I am working on. That balance of me and the character without my own voice overpowering the story.

  4. Authors like Douglas Adams and Madeleine L'Engle owned their voice, and whenever I feel like I'm lost on my way to developing my voice, I re-read something of theirs.

    Excellent post, as usual. You're more determined than I am. If I'm bored, I don't finish a book, no matter how much I want to know the ending.

  5. I am one that used to concentrate heavily on plot 5 years years ago, to the point that the plot was amazing. Then when the words are read back, the narration and development of characters stank.

    I had to hone my voice. So I did. Or, I still am. I am not perfect and will fall into that old trap of placing words without the key emotion to keep the reader sucked in.

    We must look at our writing objectively, and critique everything from plot, point of view, voice, setting, characterisation and dialogue. Within that, the right voice will spring out.

    The voice I use for fantasy differs from science fiction, and eventually when I move onto eroticulus-malicious-adulterous novels... well the voice there will be rampant.

    Totally agree on breathing life into your characters and making their actions and dialogue fit them. Don't try to make every character sound and behave the same. This is not Sylvanian Families...

    Let’s be clear. Poor dialogue shows, and it can make or break your novel. If I am reading a novel about a cowboy western gang and they all start saying; “One must aim with the barrel loaded, or one shall miss.” I would keel over laughing and then I’d sonic-boom the book back to the sin-bin.

    Distinctive voices will make the character recognisable and will help the reader, especially when there are scenes with many speaking. There might be a joker, a serious person, a flirt, a menace or a coward. Their words and actions are all different, aren’t they?

    Hone your voice to the character and let them move your plot from a thought to a work of art.

  6. Great post! Voice can make or break a scene, character or the entire book. It's definitely something you can't cut corners on as an author.

  7. In my writing, I strive to avoid the use of passive voice, and any time I feel it creeping in, I slash and edit until I'm satisfied. Passive voice is one fantastic yawn. Great post.

  8. What a great post, Su. And comments.

    We all have different views of voice. It's the author's job to put the readers in the boat with the charactrs but at the same time fill their minds with the surroundings. It has to do with flow and pace.

    Thank you for an insightful look.