Tuesday, July 27, 2010

FAQ - Where Does VOICE Come From?

An aspiring author recently asked me about the thing writers call Voice.  "What is it?" she asked.   "You mentioned 'finding your voice and being solidly in it.' How did you 'find' yours?  Is it consistent in your novels? "

Ahh.  That's what I get for tossing about terms, the meaning of which I have only a hazy idea. My initial reaction was to say that I had no more idea where my 'voice' comes from than I can account for those tiny circles like planets round the sun in the picture above.

That's not entirely true. I suspect the circles are reflections -- and I know what I mean by voice. But I went looking round the web for a more official definition.

About.com  had this to say:
  • Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or
  • Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.
Okay. Keeping those definitions in mind, where does voice come from?

The first sort of voice -- the style of the author -- I believe comes from the experiences of the author. In my case, that experience includes years of reading all sorts of things from Jane Austen and Thackery to Mark Twain and Wodehouse -- with a hefty dose of Douglas Adams, Lee Smith, Rumer Goden and, as they say, many, many more.

My style includes a slight tendency to be pedantic (yes, I was an English major and a teacher and I love big words,) as well as a touch of playfulness. There's also a Southern childhood, my particular generation (will I ever get beyond saying that things are 'neat' or 'cool'?) and my thirty-plus years absorbing the culture of rural Appalachia.  All of these things contribute to a multi-layered effect. (I suspect that this blog is a fair example of my natural voice. )

The second definition -- the voice of a first person character -- is what I was talking about when I spoke of 'finding my voice.' What I really meant was finding Elizabeth's voice.
My protagonist Elizabeth not only lives on a farm that is very much like where I live, she also shares my Southern past and the English major thing. She's ten years younger than I and she doesn't (or shouldn't) say 'neat' and 'cool.' In fact, she shares so much of my world view that for the first four books, I chose to write her in third person point of view -- not wanting to have her quite so identified with me.

But by the time I got to the fifth Elizabeth book, my protagonist had become a fully-realized character -- a bit like me still, but with a whole set of experiences that were uniquely her own.  So at last I began to write Elizabeth in first person. And her voice as a character is substantially different from my own -- at least, I think it is.

When I write my novels, the overall style is pretty much similar to my natural voice but I try to suppress or let free various elements as seems appropriate.  The pedantic voice had a field day with the character of The Professor in In a Dark Season. The Appalachian culture is, of course, the basis for many of my characters -- Miss Birdie, of course, and Cletus and Bib and quite a few others.

Very often I have an idea for a character and I think to myself -- this person is going to be a  lot like ____. Sometimes I fill in the blank with the name of a friend or acquaintance; sometimes it's a character in a book.  And as I write this character, I'm always thinking, What would ___ do in this situation? What would they say? How would they say it?

 I keep a file on my computer of interesting scraps of conversation or descriptions.  And I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting characters
 As for that last question --Is the voice consistent in my novels? -- I think so -- but one day I may surprise myself and write something very different.

This post will be added to the FAQ page over at my Day of Small Things blog.


Jon Lee said...

I love this post. You explain voice so well. Some of my students have trouble understanding voice. Would you mind if I used your explanation to help them?

Bernie said...

You are such a special lady and I love how you reach out and help others, as Martha Stewart would say "that's a good thing"...:-)Hugs

Eliane Zimmermann said...

I didn't know there was a term for IT, the voice. though only writing text books so far I know the phenomenon. Even when teaching about essential oils I sometime say things I didn't "know" before. Must be from the VOICE.

Friko said...

A very interesting and informative post. Voice as a separate entity is an important aspect of writing, one that can surely never be 'overcome', 'buried', or ignored, because it comes, as you say, out of the writer's life.

The successful novelist is the one who writes about what he knows and understands. The phoney bits stick out immediately.

Friko said...

Sorry, Vicki, that should be 'she as well as he'.

Martin H. said...

This is a really clear explanation to a question that must puzzle writers and non-writers alike.

I know what you say is true. I re-read some of my articles from more than 25 years ago and, they didn't appear to have been written by the person I've come to know as me. That's life experience for you!

Brian Miller said...

nice. i appreciate your thoughts and candor on writing...

chiccoreal said...

Dear Vicki: Thank-you for this helpful advice. Reminds me of a joke I heard yesterday; "Everyday drudgery can sound phenomenally exciting with Earl Ray Jones voice over." Vicki; your "voice" reminds me of a feminine version of the Earl Ray JOnes aka Darth Vader! There is a very dramatic almost Shakespearean actor cum storyteller in your "voice" which makes your work resound with powerful and lasting and excellent resonance. Bravo Vicki!

Jean Baardsen said...

Aside from what the others said, I'd like to add that the spider web picture (checking out the web!) is fabulous. I still say cool all the time too....

Carol@ Writers Porch/ Book House said...

I love this post!I find that in meeting many of my favorite authors,
it turns out they are very much like the VOICE in their books.I agree that this stems from them writing what they know, as in the saying;
"The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree".

Vicki Lane said...

Jon Lee -- you are welcome to use it!

Bernie -- I teach writing and it's good for me to come up with understandable answers to these questions. I realize that not all readers of this blog are interested in writing -- some may be here for the chickens...or the recipes... or whatever.

Eliane -- oh, the VOICE is there, even in textbooks..or letters..or blog posts...

Friko -- which is why my writing stays so close to home. I'd love to write about life in 14th century Japan or 19th century England but I suspect it would all have an Appalachian twang.

Martin -- my first (mercifully unpublished) novel, written in 2001) was OBVIOUSLY written by someone who didn't quite know what she was trying to do.

Chiccoreal - Darth Vader? Boy, would that have been useful when I was teaching eighth graders. But seriously -- what a compliment! Thank you!

Jean, You too, huh? Cool.

Tammy said...

Great post! As for a different voice..perhaps a Pirate running amok on the high seas? Oh wait...didn't you already dabble there? ;-) Kidding aside, it is always refreshing and interesting to read a book of any sort where you know the author is firmly grounded or versed in what they write about.

Helen T in SC said...

Am I too critical to say that there were 3 "s"es missing at the ends of words throughout the post? Yes, it bothers me that proofreading snags my attention before content. Enjoyed your comments on voice.

Vicki Lane said...

We won't talk about the pirate just now, Tammy ;-)

Thanks for the heads-up, Helen! I think the heat melted those s's right off -- and my brain was too fried to notice. That's why it's always good to have another person proofread your writing.

June Calender said...

Well done discussion of voice. As a playwright I have thought about voice constantly -- each character must have his own voice. A fascinating but fun challenge. I've found lately when writing short stories that, because of this practice with characters in plays, I can write stories in different voices, sometimes first person and sometimes third but not me, the writer -- except, of course, it really is. Then voice definition gets sticky.

sylviadickeysmithbooks said...

Vicki, Very well said! I'd love to take this article and post it on my website--as you being my guest. Might you email me at sds(at)suddenlink.net to discuss?

Deanna said...

That's neat! (sorry, I couldn't help myself)

I admire your talent. Hubby keeps telling me that I have a book in me and I keep telling him everybody does - but you have to know how to let it out.

I am well into your third book, Old Wounds, and am enjoying myself greatly. Have passed the first two on to my best friend and she claims she is hooked (and is prodding me on to read faster lol)

Have a wonderful day.