As you read this, I’m driving home from two conferences in Alabama—Murder in the Magic City and Murder on the Menu. I’m writing this post before I leave for them, for obvious reasons. While I’m getting ready to leave, I’m also thinking about one of the panels I’ll be on, “Murder: How Do You Give It Voice,” and about the whole problem of voice in fiction.
I often find confusion surrounding the issue of voice in fiction. It may be mixed up with point of view and with the voice of one or more characters. Narrative voice in fiction is what allows us to identify a writer’s work, even if one book or part of a book is told in one character’s first-person viewpoint and another book or part is told in a different character’s first-person viewpoint. The two character voices will be different from each other, but the writer’s voice will be apparent throughout. The writer’s voice, the narrative voice, is comprised of the author’s values, control over the material, narrative structure and strategies, attitude toward characters, tone, and the distinctive way the author employs language. This last item is also called style, and I place it last because I’ve seen so many new authors struggle to “develop a style.” The truth about style is that it’s usually and at best unconscious, a result of all those other choices a writer makes.
I’ve written fiction in first-person and in third-person viewpoints. My first-person viewpoint characters have ranged from a child in a troubled family to an elderly middle-class African American man who loves to garden to a young hillbilly seamstress who’s a battered wife during World War II to the strong female Cherokee campus police chief protagonist, Skeet Bannion, in my mystery series. Each of these characters has had a different voice, a different way of seeing, talking to others, and telling the story, but any perceptive person reading them all would realize they were written by the same person.
A writer’s narrative voice involves her obsessions, the topics of interest that she returns to again and again to explore. A writer’s voice involves where he stands on various issues, even if his characters disagree. If a writer is innovative and reckless or careful and controlled with the material she’s working with and the narrative strategies she chooses to employ, her voice will vary accordingly. A writer’s tone and attitude to his characters play heavily into the way in which he manipulates the language he uses and heavily influence his voice.
I know of writers who decide to imitate the work of authors they admire, trying to attain their style, but style is as individual as a fingerprint, and all they end up doing is failing at being the admired author while they also fail at being the writer only they could be. A failure on both counts and doubly sad.
The best way to develop your own unique voice, the one only you can offer the world, is to read a lot and write a lot, always trying to get better at the craft of writing, learning new techniques and trying them out to see if they are a fit for you or not. The more you write, actively trying to improve at the craft all the time, the more you will find yourself settling into your own way of doing things and thus developing your own individual voice, that one thing that, in the final analysis, is all we writers really have to give to the world, our own unique vision.
Are there writers whose narrative voices you really admire and enjoy even as their character voices are different? I think of Margaret Maron, whose Sigrid Harald books are so different from her Deborah Knott books, and yet I think no one could ever think anyone but Margaret Maron had written either of those series of books.