Voice—Yours and Theirs
by Erin Brown
For those of you who read my articles every month (oh, how I love you so. The rest of you can suck it), you probably know that I have a certain, tried and true “voice” that comes through in my writing. Some might call it sarcastic, or witty, some might even say it’s annoying (bite me), but it is consistent. This is my “voice.” Based on this voice I feel comfortable with, I would find it very difficult to write, for example, a staid Edwardian novel of flowery descriptions, quaint characters, and sweet, romantic love. It just wouldn’t be true to my voice and the writing itself would suffer.
Which is why I want to talk about voice. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I edit in which the author hasn’t completely found their own voice, much less the voices of their characters. Obviously, an author’s voice is usually (although not always) very similar to their own voice in “real life.” An outlandish personality often creates the same type of characters on the page and writes in a more colorful, risk-taking style. A more reserved writer will probably reflect this personality trait in his or her writing as well. Again, there are always exceptions. But the most important thing a writer must do is to find their own voice.
One of the first novels I ever bought was about a sassy female PI, a la Stephanie Plum. The book was laugh-out-loud funny and one day at lunch, I asked the author why she was in her fifties and just now writing her first novel.
“Oh, I’ve written many manuscripts before, but this is the first one that got a bite. In fact,” she continued, “you rejected three of my previous books!”
“Say it isn’t so!” I cried.
I definitely would have remembered such a funny voice, I thought. She then went on to jog my memory about the other very serious, dark, suspense novels she had crafted. I suddenly remembered and was dumbstruck. This witty, sassy woman in front of me wrote those books? The ones without a laugh, a witticism, not even one rib tickler? No wonder she hadn’t found interest. Those previous attempts had not been written in her authentic voice. Once she began to stay true to herself, she said, the recent book had simply flowed out of her. The writing had ended up being the easiest, most enjoyable experience she’d ever had. And it had paid off!
Equally as important, a writer must create distinct character voices. I always say that it’s not about what your characters say; it’s abouthow they say it. Take for example, one simple line of dialogue and see how different personalities would say it. The following lines of dialogue convey that a female character is saying good morning to her brother, Greg, and telling him she’s going to the store. Notice the differences.
“Good morning, Greg. I am going to go to the grocery store.” (No voice present).
“Yo, waddup, bro? I’m hittin’ the store, wanna fly with?”
“Morning. I don’t even care if that asshole called, tell him I went to the store and to bite me.” (Erin Brown’s voice?)
“Greg, Mother says that you must accompany me to purchase truffles or she will disinherit you. I said she should just turn you out onto the street now, and save us all some time, annoyance, and boatloads of cash. Now where’s my new Vuitton?”
“Ugh, sunshine. Shoot me now. Need anything from the store, Greg? Bread, coffee, a less depressing sister?”
“My, it’s simply gorgeous outside! Greg, isn’t it grand? Well, that settles it! This much springtime calls for a trip to the market. I must partake of some hot beignets! Perhaps I’ll call upon Sara, bless her heart. She’s sure to forget about her unfortunate state of spinsterhood and that terrible lesion on her face once she smells the magnolias this morning!”
You get the drift—you can say the same thing in so many different ways that reflect the personality, style, and voice of your characters. Before you even think about writing, establish your character voices. Is your main character sassy, sweet, serious, funny, dark, moody, depressed, a (wo)man of few words, sedate, adventurous, flighty, demure, obnoxious? Make your characters fully realized and make sure that their voice and personality shine through in their thoughts and dialogue. This is what creates memorable characters that stay with the reader long after the final page. And most importantly, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it!
That’s all for now.
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com