There’s this thing that writers talk about called “voice”.
It seems like jargon. It sounds (hah!) to non-writers like we’re trying to put distance and arcane-ness and mystery between “us” (the writers) and you (the readers/non-writers), and sometimes in conversation it really does sound so nebulous and obscure that one could be led to believe that we’re just trying to keep non-writers out of the witch’s coven here.
But voice is a real thing. A lot of readers do notice it, consciously or not, because they will get a little ways into a novel and put it down saying “It doesn’t really ‘get’ to me” or “It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing” or maybe just “It’s boring” – even when that first chapter contains an execution, an armed robbery, and a major building collapse.
It isn’t a lack of action, obviously, because there are books where literally nothing of any sizable note happens in the first three chapters, and yet readers are so hooked that they skip dinner in order to keep on reading.
Voice is hard to describe.
It’s partly the way the author writes – a kind of version of “style”, I guess, but not exactly, because a writer could write one way in one book, and quite differently in another book, but still be writing in their own way.
(Margaret Atwood does this handily. Try comparing The Handmaid’s Tale with, say, Lady Oracle, and you can see how different the “voice” is and yet…still recognizably Atwood and no one else.)
Yeah. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
“Voice” is two things, really.
First, there’s a kind of internal and shifting “voice” that can be (should be, imho) unique to each character within a book: the way in which a character speaks, acts, views the world. Someone who is over-educated and pompous sounds and feels different on the page than the lonely peasant charcoal burner does.
It’s really tricky to do this without reducing everyone to caricatures, of course: believe me, you do NOT want to write someone as if they have an “accent” that you yourself do not naturally possess.
Nothing kills the suspension of disbelief faster than things like that. If you are not black and/or were not raised in a ghetto in an American city, don’t even try to reproduce that dialect on the printed page. I don’t care how much rap music you listened to when you were fifteen – it will come across as inaccurate, phony, and immature.
Case In Point: I got exactly twelve pages into “The Help” before I threw that book across the room (metaphorically, of course. In my upbringing, mistreating books was considered a violation of human decency. It just wasn’t done.) While the author may have been very familiar with the way people really did sound in 1950s’ of the American South, it does not transfer well into print – it has the condescension of the privileged that was, judging from the reviews, the very opposite of what the writer intended.
Be gentle when you try to show differences of class or race or educational levels. Be careful and light-handed. Give the reader the benefit of the doubt here: assume their ability to “get” the differences without three neon signs and a fireworks display.
On the other hand, Voice is also how a particular author writes in a more holistic way: the kinds of language they use, the way they describe things in the sense of “ornate/detailed” versus “spare/subtle”, whether or not they rely on dialogue or action, or are more even-handed, things like that.
There’s the authorial voice that just describes everything in common and cliché’d phrases: “auburn haired”, “tall tree”, “snow-capped mountains”.
There’s the overly creative authorial voice that has to gild the lily at every opportunity: no one ever just says or is things. The characters protest, they exclaim, they whimper – and everyone has ebon-dark eyes like fathomless pools, and sit on loveseats richly upholstered in magnificent blue-and-gold brocaded silk imported from a little-known village on the Yangste.
And while none of these extremes would be inherently “wrong” in and of themselves, they aren’t individual enough to merit the term “voice”, because almost anyone who has made it through four years of standard high school English courses could probably produce this stuff reasonably well, if they really wanted to.
Voice is when you move past those things, when you develop a way of communicating that is both clear and your own, where the sound of the words begins to resonate inside the reader’s mind.
And even if an author changes a lot of superficial style/voice from novel to novel , their fans can tell who it is that’s writing. (When an author teams up with another author, a lot of readers get upset. Why? Because if the voice changes as a result of that partnership, the reader isn’t getting what they paid for. This is a REALLY good reason Regency fans should stop trying to write sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Trust me: it never works.)
Voice is pretty hard to pin down, and all I can say is that a writer who isn’t at least marginally aware of what voice is, and has not read widely to see the possibilities, well, they may write serviceable prose, readable and inoffensive, but they won’t have a voice that readers will recognize and love just for itself.
So pay attention to a writer’s voice, or the lack thereof.
It’s what makes you love one author and feel distinctly “meh” about another. Naming no names, but there are quite a few well-known and bestselling authors who really have no voice at all. The prose is basic, the words are simple, the plots are headline with-it, and the characters so stereotyped that quite often, the reader never remembers the authors’ names, even though they buy each one as it is released.
Writer or Reader: Don’t be those guys.