Every week I talk to strangers. It's part of my job. As a freelance writer, I interview folks on the phone--from designers to dentists and everyone in between. While we talk, I try to picture the person on the other end. I'm only hearing his or her voice, but I can imagine an approximate age, nationality, and even appearance. At times I can detect an accent that seems native Texan or transplanted New Englander. I can also tell if the person seems agitated or at ease, distracted or focused, pleasant or gruff--all by the sound of his or her voice.
However, when I'm writing, my reader doesn't have the luxury of hearing the words on the page. And that's true for any reader (unless they happen to be listening to an audio production of a story). The reason the narrative voice is so essential to the story is your reader will keep its company for the duration of the book; it better be interesting. That doesn't mean it has to be lovely or even pleasant but it has to be entertaining.
So, when we talk about voice in story, it's not your characters' voices--it's yours. How are you telling their story?
|Flickr image by Duncan Hill|
How you do you find your voice? At first you read and read widely. Pay attention to how the author uses phrasing and word choices, sentence structure and pacing to tell the story. Does it feel familiar? If you read one Jane Austen novel, can you pick up another and tell it's also by her? If you read Stephen King, are you likely to connect with every one of his books by his unique voice? If you pick up a book by a new author, are you drawn in? It's likely the author's voice that's hooked you from the start.
A handful of writers with unique voices include:
Next you must write. And write. And write. If you don't feel you've found your unique voice with the story, perhaps its the POV. Tell the story from another character's perspective and see if that helps. Maybe the setting needs to be changed. Telling a coming of age story in a southern town in the '60s will require a different voice than one told in the Midwest in the '80s. It's hard to know if you've found your voice and you'll likely only know when someone tells you how much they love your story.
So while a good story is ultimately about the story (even a unique voice wears thin without plot), a unique voice can enhance the experience for the reader. Do you feel you've found your voice? And do you think some authors use different voices for their novels? It's a tricky thing, voice, but once you spot it, you've got it.