How do you achieve strong voice in your narration?
When I think of “strong voice,” I usually think of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events or George Saunders’ short stories—all of which feature narrators or characters with very inventive language and syntax.
I could provide dozens of examples, but take a look at this one from Saunders’ “Fox 8”:
First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do!
One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of the suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!
I admire any author who can submerse themselves so fully within a character. It’s like method acting. The result is to give the illusion that the story person we’re listening to is unique and authentic and full of personality.
How do writers accomplish such a feat?
Guides for voice usually focus on diction and syntax as the main avenues to achieving voice, and that’s certainly the case for ventriloquists like Saunders and Mitchell. In that “Fox 8” passage, for instance, the word order (“smelling all the interest with snout”) and the unique combinations (“music werds,” “I woslike”) and the simple vocabulary (“They sounded grate”) make the fox sound childlike and foreign.
So it’s certainly true that messing with diction and syntax will get you some unique voice.
But I want to reconceptualize voice a bit.
I was recently teaching at a writing retreat, and during one of the discussions, I ran a private experiment within my own head. Whenever someone within the group spoke, I imagined repeating her words verbatim.
Were I to do this experiment all day, I imagine I’d run into a few words or sentence constructions that would feel very foreign on my tongue, but in the brief period of time I observed others’ speaking, not once did I find their diction or syntax hard to picture coming from my own mouth.
Sure, their accents might have sounded strange on my tongue. But their words never did.
And yet, I also knew that were I to repeat the same exact words, they would make a different impression coming from me.
In other words, the sense of personality I got from each person came from something other than diction and syntax.
Where, then, was this impression coming from?
There are, of course, other markers of personality that, say, a real method actor might employ in portraying a person. But I didn’t think my impression of each student on the retreat really came down to their gestures or facial expressions or their vocal inflections.
Attitude and Past
The key to voice is really about speaker attitude.
I urge you to try the experiment for yourself next time you have a chance to observe three or more people interacting. It’s best if you know those people at least somewhat—if you have a sense of their personality. You may find that one of them is an eternal optimist, one is cynical and caustic, one of them is an insecure know-it-all, etc.
If you know them well, you may even be able to theorize about why the insecure know-it-all pretends to be an expert on everything. And if you did theorize on such things, you’d be doing one of the key things a writer must do with her characters: mining their past experience.
I’m not pretending that it’s always a clear causal chain—that the know-it-all spouts random statements of fact—accuracy be damned—because one day back in fifth grade her mother quizzed her on capital cities until she broke down crying.
But having some sense of a character’s past usually helps ground attitude in deeper personality.
Instruction in writing voice often advises some form of “training your ear” by listening in on conversations between others.
But I think the key to voice is less about training your ear and more about flexing your empathy.
Robert McKee talks at length about creating characters “from the inside out.” And what he means is in order to invent what a character says and does, you have to think about the feelings and thoughts that underlie a character’s reactions.
This doesn’t mean that you necessarily render those feelings and thoughts on the page (like this: “He wondered if Simone might call him. He feared it. And yet, he longed for it, craved it, even though he knew it could never happen, blah, blah, blah”). It just means you know the feelings and thoughts. And they inform the reaction.
Voice in Action
The following passage comes from Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power. Apart from a little frame narrative, this is the very beginning of the story. It’s told in third-person limited narration, which means that you’ll get the strongest sense of voice when the narrator moves close to the character’s perspective.
The men lock Roxy in the cupboard when they do it. What they don’t know is: she’s been locked in that cupboard before. When she’s naughty, her mum puts her there. Just for a few minutes. Till she calms down. Slowly, over the hours in there, she’s worked the lock loose with a fingernail or a paperclip in the screws. She could have taken that lock off any time she wanted. But she didn’t, because then her mum would have put a bolt on the outside. It’s enough for her to know, sitting in there in the dark, that if she really wanted to she could get out. The knowledge is as good as freedom.
In this passage, diction and syntax certainly play a role. The words “naughty” and “mum” suggest a child, for instance. And the fragment sentences (“Just for a few minutes. Till she calms down.”) suggest adolescent afterthought—that kind of piling on of subordinate phrases and clauses which you see a lot in YA literature (The Power is not YA; it just has a character who, at this point in the story, is a teenager). But those are fairly generic markers of youth, which don’t really give us a sense of who this girl is.
Where we really see personality is when we see her attitude toward being locked up, which more or less comes across as this: ‘it’s no big deal; it’s sort of justified, in fact.’
And we understand her even more in the second half of the paragraph, which reveals her quiet rebellion through subverting the system, and the sense of power and freedom she gains from knowing what she can do. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize that that sentence I just wrote is very loaded; it pretty much encapsulates the character of Roxy.)
See what’s going on there with diction/syntax vs. attitude/past? Though the diction and syntax is a bit more unique in the earlier sentences (“When she’s naughty, her mum puts her there. Just for a few minutes. Till she calms down.”), the true personality comes from the less uniquely-phrased line: “She could have taken that lock off any time she wanted.”
Unique Voice vs. Strong Voice
So allow me a revision. I opened this article saying that when I think of strong voice, I think of writers like Saunders and Mitchell. Let’s call that “unique” instead. Because “unique” refers to a writing style you won’t find in many other books. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas features a different style in each of the six sections of the story. Each voice is unique.
But here’s the thing: You don’t necessarily need unique voice.
In fact, you risk being a little tedious and/or cute when you attempt unique voice.
You do want strong voice, however.
Voice is strong when the writer conveys personality effectively, thereby creating the illusion of a real person.
Unique and strong aren’t mutually exclusive. Saunders definitely writes unique voices that are also strong. If you create strong voice that isn’t unique, you’re fine. But if you create unique voice that isn’t strong, you end up with something like, I don’t know, Jar-Jar Binks.
And no one wants that.
Now, when we speak of voice, sometimes we’re interested in characters’ distinct voices, which come across via dialogue; other times we’re interested in the narration.
Narration gets messy. So I want to include some parting thoughts on narration and voice here.
Voice is a product of subjectivity. And thus, how you handle voice depends a lot on the amount of subjectivity within your narrator.
1) First-person narration is constantly subjective.
The first-person narrator is not the same as the first-person character; the narrator has already experienced the story while the character has not (read this post to distinguish author, narrator, and character). But the first-person narrator is still subjective. Always.
So if you’re writing in first person, work in assessments and judgments. Have an opinion about everything (but don’t always express it).
Again, though, the voice does not need to be unique in order to be strong. You don’t need to be a ventriloquist.
2) Third-person limited POV fluctuates in and out of close narration, moving from more objective observations to more subjective assessments.
So you write objectively/externally about orienting details or actions that serve as stimuli for character reactions; then you move to character-tinged narration showing the character’s perspective. (The concept of psychic distance is useful to know here.)
The passage above from The Power shows movement from external/objective to internal/subjective over the course of the first three or four sentences.
3) Third-person omniscient will tend toward more distance between narrator and character, so it tends toward a more reportorial sort of objectivity.
However, the most interesting omniscient stories give their narrator a personality of his own to varying degrees. There’s a sense of the unseen storyteller there, delivering the story in his unique way.
So you’ll see a tinge of subjectivity even in omniscient narration.
The clearest example I can think of for this subjective omniscient narrator is probably Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events, who opens the story by telling the reader, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book,” and later even includes the first person: “I’m sorry to tell you this.”
And yet, Snicket is also telling the story in omniscient voice, informing us what Violet and Klaus were thinking on the day at the beach that opens the story.
Voice is, in many ways, the confluence of the internal and external. This isn’t to say that diction and syntax aren’t important. They are. But I think the writer needs to think first about past and attitude and allow the diction and syntax to flow from those inner sources.
For more on narration, check out these other articles: