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Prose Basics: What is Voice, Anyway?

Sun Jan 26, 2014, 6:00 AM


At this point, you've all had awesomesauce articles on word choice, varying sentences, dialect, and dialogue. Which is great, because it cuts my job down to five minutes of nattering on about how you bring all these elements together to create that elusive thing people always go on about: VOICE.


Voice is the personality of the book.


You know that thing about avoiding cliché except every single plotline ever has been done and has the TVTropes article to prove it and OH GODS WHY?!?!

Voice solves 97% of that. It lends originality to your story by tossing a filter over the whole thing. 'The Shining' needed that kid-voice so readers could stare in horror over his shoulder, understanding things like the dark cloud of suicide in his father's head without having his reaction ruin half a page of ominous build. 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' wouldn't be the same book without its constant, gentle ribbing of everyone: Adams wasn't trying to give us a new Sherlock Holmes, even though the premise lends itself to that comparison.

I Googled the crap out of 'voice'—there's surprisingly little—and found this well-written blog. We totally agree, so that's a bullet dodged.




Voice = personality...?


In first person, "voice = personality" is easy to conceptualize. It's like, okay, I have this dude who thinks he's amazing, but he's actually Al Yankovic in 'White and Nerdy.' So he's going to talk the talk/walk the walk without ever getting it right. As far as his narration goes, you just let him do his thing. It's for the audience to recognize that "da bomb" is, like, so 1996.

What about third person?

Generally speaking, narrators have a straightforward agenda: they want the audience to sympathize with the protagonist. There are exceptions, like Cersei Lannister ('A Song of Ice and Fire' by George R. R. Martin). If GRRM had wanted to make her sympathetic, he could've shown her fearing for her children instead of plotting the destruction of their enemies.

The third-person narrator controls how readers feel about your characters, and that in turn controls its personality, even when it's not a person (aka you the author).
AKA You The Author: there is this elusive beast called "native voice," which reflects how you talk and think. How do you figure out what you sound like on paper? I found conversational things—blog entries and forum posts—better than trying to write stories. Some sites say it's partly/entirely innate, but I'm convinced it can be learned through practice.

An example: if you've read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you can make a decent guess at who wrote which part in 'Good Omens,' though the book reads evenly for the most part.

Something to consider for your "writing journey."
Let's look at the Romantics for half a second. William Makepeace Thackeray, Edgar Allan Poe: regardless of sentence complexity and esoteric word usage, they're more readable than many modern textbooks. Why? Textbooks are allegedly objective—no opinions, no personality. No filter on the world.

How do I not be a textbook?


Two words: intention and perspective.

Yeah, okay, that's not super helpful. Even if I said that intention is the motivation of the narrator—getting back to that 'agenda' mentioned above—and that perspective is the influence of nature/nurture on how a person sees the world, that doesn't tell you how to execute it. So:

  • Style/word choice.
  • Information.
  • Bias.

Style/word choice are what you really need to make things clear to the reader, so they are in one sense more important than the other two, but I'm not going to rehash those here. Let's talk about information and bias.

Information is what you tell your readers, and bias is how you tell it.

If I'm pro-abortion, I'm going to describe a Planned Parenthood clinic very differently from the protesters haranguing it. (See what I did there? I could have just said "outside.") If I want to tell you about a young woman going in, maybe I'll point out that she was abused by her mother and had no father figure to teach her how to be careful around men. A protester might point out that her sex ed didn't cover abstinence and that no one counselled her on how precious human life is. Also, one of us would say 'fetus', and the other would say 'unborn child'...guess who ;p

Bias determines what information we consider important and, by extension, what we're willing to tell others.

Ultimately, voice is how you control what people think of your narrative.

  • Who is narrating your story?
  • What biases do they have?
  • What are some writing choices you've made to show this?
  • How do you make readers like/dislike your characters?




:iconcrliterature: :iconprojecteducate:

How do I make my voice not sound like everyone else's?


Sepatown. :peace:
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:iconactsofart:
ActsofArt Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
very nice journal I enjoyed reading it.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks!
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:iconanapests-and-ink:
anapests-and-ink Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I tend to write a lot of first-person stuff (I'm lazy that way), so when I think 'voice' I go to however I imagine that particular character would sound in their head.  As in, slang has to be appropriate for their age/hometown, tone should match their emotions, word choice should reflect their level of education.  I'm intrigued by what you have to say about third-person, though.  I'm tempted to try something in third person just to see if I can pull off the right voice.

If you're going with third person omniscient, should your voice change when you focus on different characters?
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Haha, I've been writing a lot more first person than I used to. I think it's become more prevalent, too. But third person gives me a huge excuse to make fun of the characters.

It depends on whether you really mean third person omniscient or something more like what GRRM does, where it's really limited third person per each chapter. The latter, I definitely think it should change to match the character; the former, I'd expect not.
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:iconitsbumblebee:
itsbumblebee Featured By Owner Jan 28, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
This is a helpful journal.
Though my narration depends on the story 
and doesn't have those POV's thingy. like..
" (Chesnut's POV) 
 I'm so excited yipee!"
But I guess it's sort of okay,yeah..
I need to learn much more than this.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 28, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
:highfive: You should never have to indicate whose point of view it is.
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:iconitsbumblebee:
itsbumblebee Featured By Owner Jan 28, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I know x'D
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:iconmonochromera:
monochromera Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014

this is.... really helpful o.o surprisingly enough, with studio arts. after hearing my art teacher say a thousand times "your works need to reflect your voice as an artist" "tie your written statement to the voice of your pictures" I think I finally understand it better :D it's nice to have a clear definition, dotted with enough humor and wit to keep a reader like myself hooked, despite me having the attention span of a dog XD

thank you for writing and sharing this! it was a joy to read :>

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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
:giggle: Thanks, glad you enjoyed!

My attention span is on the scale of goldfish....
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:iconmonochromera:
monochromera Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014

welcome~


goldfish have attention-spans O: they have bigger noggins than I give them credit for. am sorry fishes D:

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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Their short term memories are ridiculously short...just like mine
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:iconthedinosaurthatflies:
thedinosaurthatflies Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
wow this is good! thanks for sharing this! i'm having a bit of trouble, because my friend is advising to be more formal when i write (this was about a story in first perspective)....or, my character does. :3 but i feel that it's just not who my character is, so i'm a bit conflicted about this. could you give me some advice about this?? that'd really help. ^^
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Start with how real people like your character talk. :)
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:iconthedinosaurthatflies:
thedinosaurthatflies Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
thanks for the advice, i appreciate it. :)
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:iconrovanna:
Rovanna Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   Digital Artist
This is probs the clearest definition of voice I've seen! Most of the time I see it explained like "go with the flow, be yourself dude!" but this makes so much sense. :U
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Hooray!

Yeah, that totally pisses me off.
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:iconensoul:
ensoul Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Professional General Artist
All very true. Bonus pitfall: when a writer can't separate the dialogue of individual characters from the overall voice of the book. I've been reading (and reading and reading) the Pynchon book Against the Day. It's quite good, interesting concept, but he uses this rambling, only slightly coherent style in the narration, and whenever any single character talks too long, they slip into the same voice.

It may have some cool uses when done intentionally, but nothing flattens a cast of characters like making their dialogue interchangeable.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Agreed. It's one thing to have them sound similar if they're from the same area, but they shouldn't sound like the narrator in third.
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:iconcronasonlyfriend:
cronasonlyfriend Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
My story is narrated by my protagonist Eli. Originally, the novel was in third person, but I opted to go back and change EVERYTHING to first person, as I thought that it would cause the audience to relate/connect to him more. (I think I was right in this regard, as I've only gotten positive feedback about the change.)

Eli is very prideful, so when someone calls him "boy" or "lad" - which he is, as he is only fifteen years old - he feels really miffed. He also has a bias against those with wealth.

Specifically, this is shown through Eli's thoughts when his brother/caretakers' son Erin is making clocks: clocks for the wealthy to flaunt, he says.

In general, Eli is the underdog, so most people end up picking his side.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for sharing!
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:iconcronasonlyfriend:
cronasonlyfriend Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
You're very welcome :)
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:iconwei-en:
wei-en Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
Last time I was told to develop voice I was 14. 

Voice is haaaaaard.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
But worth it!
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:iconwei-en:
wei-en Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Very.
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:iconbrietta-a-m-f:
brietta-a-m-f Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist

Fun, fun! Voice can be really hard to get a good grip on. It took me quite a long time to find my own, and now I have two, one for my children's story and one for my stories that children really shouldn't read.

 

As for morphing into the last author you read (as has been mentioned a couple of times), I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing when you're starting out. Imitation was how I learned and discovered what I could and couldn't do. I honestly never purposefully tried to make my voice my own, I slowly grew into it as I kept writing.

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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Ha, awesome!

I think it's great, much as master copies have been a key part of learning drawing for a long time... as long as you're also thinking about which aspects really fit * you *.
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:iconbrietta-a-m-f:
brietta-a-m-f Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I also think it's an excellent exercise to go back through older works and look at how things evolve over time. That's part of the reason I never throw anything away on purpose, (even though some of them make me really want to).
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I don't look at old shit unless I'm planning to revise, haha. I used to be overfond of descriptors.
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:iconbrietta-a-m-f:
brietta-a-m-f Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I do when I get stuck on something current and am looking for nuggets of inspiration, or if I'm simply bored. I had no real pacing and was always writing overly emotional scenes that took a nosedive firmly into the realm of cliche. Looking at those horrible things keeps me humble. :P
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I refuse humility ;p

well... that and anything I look at after six months is full of bad decision making, inevitably.
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:iconbrietta-a-m-f:
brietta-a-m-f Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Nod  I know how you feel.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
:shakefish: damn past neuro!
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(1 Reply)
:iconladykylin:
LadyKylin Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
Narrative voice comes from experamention, following gut instintct and seeing where those what if I did this, sort of thought takes you. I think most authors take a long time to find their voice, just like most visual artist take years to find their particular style, and it deosn't nessicarly stay the same. Nor should it, art is a reflection of the world filtered through the artist, as the artist changes, so does their art. I favor deep 3rd person when writing anything that isn't a short story. IT's got a lot of the advantages 1st has, but allows for a lot of the advantages of 3rd as well.

  • Who is narrating your story?

My current wip has an elf whose recovering from horrible abuse, has serious trust issues.

  • What biases do they have?

Many. His history, and his outlook color the narrative. His trust issues change how he percives the people around him and a lot of his anger comes out.

  • What are some writing choices you've made to show this?

Word choice, the things he notices. In once scene he attends a ball, and the first thing he notices about a lot of them is their military background, if they have a weopon on them, and guessing if a slight limp is the cuase of a war injury.

  • How do you make readers like/dislike your characters?

Going beneath the surface, showing a characters deepest fears and desires and why the way they are. Also giving them a good sense of humor helps. It's hard to truly hate a character that makes you laugh a lot.

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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I think there may be some shifts in voice, but I would expect them to mostly be in style/word choice aspects as the person develops their craft.

Thanks for answering the questions!
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:iconshadowedlove97:
ShadowedLove97 Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Student Writer
Voice is so hard to get right. Like someone mentioned below; if you're not great with voice you typically morph into the author you last read.

I like to think that I've gotten a lot better with it. In first person I usually try to focus on how the character would narrate the story (if the character isn't well-versed in English I'd focus on simpler terms and maybe even have the "narrator" struggle with a few words, for example). If it's third-person, I tend to write it as if the narrator was the reader or an "invisible bystander" as I like to call it. It makes writing quite fun and I think it adds a bit of flare! I've also been told by some of my readers that it really helps to immerse them into my writing, which is what I aim for haha!
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Awesome!
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:iconc-a-harland:
C-A-Harland Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Student Writer
This was a very well written article. Voice is such a hard thing to explain/describe, but you've done a wonderful job. 
I particularly agree about the comment on using bias/agenda as a way to create your character's "voice". I always try to think of what's more important to my character, in regards to their likes/dislikes and beliefs and weigh the narrative based on that. E.g. if I have a character who's really into vehicles, I might have him comment on "that Audi A3 2L FSI" as opposed to another character who might just say "that silver car". The difficulty comes of course, when your character is interested in something you know next to nothing about. But that's what wikipedia is for.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you!

Yes, there's definitely that research component. I think it's worth it.
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:iconsemi-surreal:
semi-surreal Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist

It's not Don't write "lazy"; it's: Don't write "lazily".

*haranguing her*


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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
eh, I didn't come up with it d:
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:iconsemi-surreal:
semi-surreal Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist

Now try that again -- in YOUR "voice".


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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
too lazy!
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:iconsemi-surreal:
semi-surreal Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist

hahaa!


Hey, I hope you're staying warm these next few days with our -20F and 5 inches of snow coming to Chicago....


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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
urrrrgh... no thanks!
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:iconmidgetshinigami:
MidgetShinigami Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Student Writer
I have a long way to go… I'm not really a text book, but my stuff seems so flat now… really helpful article, anyway, thanks for writing it!
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Good luck!
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:iconmidgetshinigami:
MidgetShinigami Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Student Writer
Thanks!
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:iconworldwar-tori:
WorldWar-Tori Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014   General Artist
a. I wish my braid/pony tail did that.
b. awesome article :la:
c. I don't write much prose, so I have nothing more to contribute other than an thank you for being awesome!
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
You should see the belt!

It probably applies in part to poetry, but I dunno enough to say ;p
Reply
:iconworldwar-tori:
WorldWar-Tori Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014   General Artist
There's a belt!? Now I'm curious, where can I find this "belt"??

Ahh, you have me there you devil :lol:
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