The Writer's Writing Guide: Voice

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Voice is the way the story speaks to you. You can actually hear voice, as if the words you are reading are enunciating right up from the page. Voice can be in the first, second, or third person, and belongs to the character, or non-character narrator, who is telling the story. Usually when the voice belongs to a character, it is the main character, but sometimes, as in Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, it is a secondary character who is describing the action. Non-character narrator voices are used when the story is speaking in a distinct way, but the mouth behind the voice belongs to the author herself, or to a character who never appears, and is in fact more an attitude than a personality. Non-character narrator voices ally the reader more directly to the author and the author's take on the world; character voices ally the reader more directly to, naturally, the character. The former brings us more quickly to understanding the author's world view; the latter brings us more quickly into the story itself. In either case, voice is one of the most major devices available to you for making your writing unique.

It is also one of the primary devices you have for creating character. This is because voice gives us character. That may be the character who is telling us the story, and therefore be a character in the book. It also may be the character, or stance, which the author is taking when reporting this material. The general rule is that first and second person voices belong to a character in the book; third person voices, whether limited, omniscient, or objective, can belong either to characters in the book, or to a non-character narrator. (For more detail about these points of view, see the chapter on Point of View.)

Regardless of who is speaking, the voice you use can convey many aspects of the character, or non-character narrator, including:

age

regionalism

ethnicity

socio-economic class

educational background

disposition

attitude toward the world

degree of self-awareness

level of intelligence

Because voice is such a versatile and potent tool, I hesitate to urge students to follow the standard dictum of "find your voice." I feel that such a directive implies that writers have only one voice. This seems as foolish as saying that we have only one best friend or one favorite food — or that throughout our lives we will write about only one character. I think we are all more multi-faceted and imaginative than that, and so can, if we become fluent with the elements that make up voice, develop multiple voices. We can, if we desire, become literary ventriloquists, and hence write each piece in a voice most appropriate to the story we are trying to tell.

But how is voice created? What are the elements one can use to find a voice?

I would like to give you an exhaustive list of the elements of voice, but every day some new writer discovers, like a chemist in the lab, some new elements, and so is able to synthesize an ever more accurate voice. As a result, you should consider this to be a partial list. Once you become more aware of voice, both through your reading and your writing, you may want to add your own elements as well.

1. Subject matter — What the character is talking about, or we are what fascinates us. The character who discusses her Nascar training routine will probably have a different kind of character from the one who discusses the perfect approach to making watercress sandwiches. Subject matter is one of the first keys to voice.

For example, in Nicholson Baker's novel, The Mezzanine, the first person voice begins:

At almost one o'clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. The escalators rose toward the mezzanine, where my office was. They were the free-standing kind: a pair of integral signs swooping upward between the two floors they served without struts or piers to bear any intermediate weight. On sunny days like this one, a temporary, steeper escalator of daylight, formed by intersections of the lobby's towering volumes of marble and glass, met the real escalators just above their middle point, spreading into a needly area of shine where it fell against their brushed-steel side-panels, and adding long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails which wavered slightly as the handrails slid on their tracks, like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of an LP.

Here we have a character who spends his first paragraph with us discussing not himself, not the people he saw when picking up his CVS bag, but the fine details of the escalators. This is because this character is, we learn, a guy who is obsessed with the tiniest details of contemporary life. So he spends chapters speculating on when straw companies changed their paper from the kind you can blow off to the kind you have to push off, and on how to get dressed in the morning without smudging your clothing with underarm deodorant. He's up front about who he is — through his subject matter.

A second example is in Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. Here, the voice is so focused on a certain subject matter that we realize it is an obsession. (The voice, also, gives us theme and the tone of the book, as well as a great many details, through indirect exposition, about the character of the narrator.) Here is the very succinct first chapter:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

2. Diction — The specific word choices made by the character, or we are our vocabulary. A character who says, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," is different from the character who says, "Frankly, toots, I don't give a rat's ass." The former character is more formal, more refined, than the latter, who might even be something of a lowlife. This is why it's terribly important to write with great attention to each word, and it's equally important to read with care, noticing the selectivity with which all good writers choose their words.

Word choices can give us all kinds of detail about the character who is speaking. In the "Jason" section of William Faulkner's novel The Sound And The Fury, the Jason character begins by saying:

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you're lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they've got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her.

The first line in this example gives us the character immediately. First, we have the use of the word "bitch," rather than, say, "jerk," or "dumb shit," or "poorly behaved woman." "Bitch," which is derogatory and colloquial, reveals Jason's anger and unabashed misogyny — squared, since he says it twice. Not only that, but he emphasizes it further with the phrase "what I say." "What I say" is a phrase of hostility, thereby showing us that Jason is extremely angry. We get his character further when we begin the next sentence: "I says you're lucky..." The grammatical choice, which is incorrect, is the choice of someone who is speaking — and who is speaking through clenched teeth. This is no poet, no genteel reporter. This is a furious, resentful, tattler. He's mad (and bigoted, we see later in the paragraph), and he wants to tell us about it.

Another example is in Richard Ford's story "Rock Springs." The first paragraph is:

Edna and I had started down from Kalispell heading for Tampa-St. Pete, where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police. I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad checks — which is a prison crime in Montana. And I know Edna was already looking at her cards and thinking about a move, since it wasn't the first time I'd been in law scrapes in my life. She herself had already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things.

Our first clue to this guy's character is in the phrase "from the old glory days." Immediately, we get the sense of a character who has lived a shady life. But Ford chose this phrase for more than that reason. Otherwise, he could have used any of a number of other phrases for referring to the criminal life, such as "my time in the underground," or "my life on the lam," or "my outlaw days." Instead, he chose "old glory days" because a) it has an older, somewhat low-key feel to it, the sort of slang that, in the 1980's and 1990's, an aging criminal would say, not a guy who's twenty or even thirty; and b) it has a sarcastic feel to it, the "glory" being blatantly the opposite of the criminal life. Thus, the expression tells us that, not only is he an older guy who once was steeped in a life outside the law, but that he is also feeling somewhat tired of it. This same approach to diction, then, leads Ford to say the character "managed to scrape with the law," and that Edna is "looking at her cards," and that he wants to give his daughter "a better shake in things." We get the feeling that the character is guy who is understated, perhaps even soft-spoken; that he's almost easy-going, as opposed to angry; that his crimes have probably not been manic, horribly violent crimes, but instead might be quieter crimes, better suited to his quieter way of speaking.

3. Inserted phrases — Some verbal ornamentation, or we are our garnish. These phrases are usually of a more spoken nature, and they heighten the sense that the character is speaking directly to us.

One well-known example is the opening to Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. . . .

The paragraph begins with an inserted phrase ("If you really want to hear about it") which immediately tells us that this is a strong voice who is reluctantly — yet eagerly — going to reveal something important to him. We sense that the character has some kind of edge to his personality. Perhaps he's an angry young person, we think. Our suspicion begins to slide toward assumption when we hit "lousy childhood" and "how my parents were occupied," partially because of the subject matter, and partially because of the diction ("lousy"). The sentence then ends with another inserted phrase: "if you want to know the truth." Again, we feel that we have someone speaking right to us. We also realize from that phrase, as well as the first phrase, that this is a person of paradox, since s/he has just hit us with a resistance to going into "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," but then follows up not with pride in that attitude, but with an almost plaintive admission: "if you want to know the truth." So right away, in the first sentence, we get a character of anger, contradiction, and complexity.

Another example comes from the opening to Allan Gurganus' novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. In addition to using an inserted phrase, this also makes use of something I'll discuss below: omission.

Died on me finally. He had to.

Died doing his bad bugle imitation, calling for the maps, died bellowing orders at everybody, horses included. "Not over there, dunderdick, rations go here." Stayed bossy to the last. He would look down in bed, he'd command the sheets to roll back. They didn't.

— My poor husband, Captain Marsden, he perished one Election Day. Children were setting off firecrackers on our vacant lot. Cap believed it was Antietam flaring up on him again like a game knee. So he went happy, yelling March! to his men (all dead) and to me (not dead yet, thank you very much). It's about what I expected I reckon.

Up until the end of the third paragraph, we are focused on a character other than the narrator. But then we get to "not dead yet, thank you very much." At that point, we realize that this voice has pluck, and we probably also suspect that it's a southern voice, since the inserted phrase of "thank you very much" tends to be used more in the south than the north. In addition, we have just spent three paragraphs meeting this narrator's husband, who is clearly a difficult person, and so the spunk which comes out in this inserted phrase is quite welcome, a relief, even, and makes us realize that this woman won't be brow-beaten by her Captain, that she's going to be a formidable spouse, and hence a strong character in her own right. (Omission is used both with pronouns — see the very first sentence — and with punctuation — see the last sentence.)

4. Omission — What we leave out, or we are our tendency to not bother. As in the above example, a voice can omit both words and punctuation, and sometimes it might omit narrative developments (see the Carver example below). Omission indicates that the character has priorities, and that some things just don't make the grade. Indeed, that there are some things about which the character just can't be bothered. In the Gurganus example, the voice can't be bothered with using a pronoun to begin her book. Part of this is to indicate the spoken-ness of her voice, and part of it is to cut the Captain — this larger-than-life character who so rules her life — down to size. She introduces her own I-can-stand-up-for-myself nature by describing her spouse (and nemesis) without giving him the privilege of being a subject. He is reduced to an implied subject. And so we see that she is a fighter in spirit (even if it might be only passively). The punctuation which is omitted in the final sentence — "It's about what I expected I reckon" shows us that this character does not necessarily pause at comma-appropriate spots, and so has her own rhythm to speech. This is particularly important here, since it follows the fairly resigned sentence "It's about what I expected." Which means that the first half of the sentence is a sigh, but the second half is — more subtly — an assertion of self.

Omissions are usually about assertions of self. They are the voice's way of showing that it is recreating expectations about speech and breath, that it is turning the usual into something that suits them better, and that the reader, therefore, cannot necessarily put this character in a box with others just like it — since this one is clearly an original.

Jayne Anne Phillips uses a lot of omission in her short stories. Her story "The Heavenly Animal" begins:

Jancy's father always wanted to fix her car. Every time she came home for a visit, he called her at her mother's house and asked about the car with a second sentence.

Well, he'd say, How are you?

Fine, I'm fine.

And how's the car? Have any trouble?

Here, the voice (which is a non-character narrator voice) can't be bothered with quotation marks. We therefore see it as a slightly cynical, rebellious voice, one that is likely to come from a place that is not mainstream, that questions, that is going to throw us out of predictability.

Jayne Anne Phillips uses this device both in her non-character narrator voices, and in her first person voices. See her story "Home," which begins:

I'm afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now — how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do the conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn't he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on.

Mom, I say. Maybe he's just resting. He must have made a lot of money by now. Maybe he's tired of talking about elections and mine disasters and the collapse of the franc. Maybe he's in love with a young girl.

Now for a voice that uses all three kinds of omissions: words, punctuation, and narrative development. This is the opening to Raymond Carver's story "Are These Actual Miles?"

Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it. Toni is smart and has personality. She used to sell children's encyclopedias door to door. She signed him up, even though he didn't have kids. Afterward, Leo asked her for a date, and the date led to this. This deal has to be cash, and it has to be done tonight. Tomorrow somebody they owe might slap a lien on the car....

This is a no-nonsense voice, a voice that cuts right to the matter — and, because of its multiple omissions ("Fact is" instead of "The fact is," the omission of the comma after "Fact is," and the gap in the narrative development), makes it clear that it is on the edges of life, coming at things in an unconventional way, makes its own rules.

In short, omission, more than most other elements of voice, gives us attitude.

5. Grammar — Breaking or sticking to grammatical rules, or we is who we is. A voice that uses "whom" and carefully avoids ending a sentence with a preposition is obviously showing us a character quite different from a voice that breaks rules. Grammatical errors reveal the character's educational level and/or regionalism, since what is grammatically incorrect in Manhattan might be just peachy in Mississippi.

This is immediately apparent in Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain:

You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth....

This opening has several grammatical errors. In this case, these errors show both that the voice is uneducated and is revealing regional grammatical preferences. Huck Finn's voice is also unapologetic about making such errors, which means this character seems, at the beginning of the book, to be fairly comfortable with who he is. He seems to be a character who has settled into himself, someone solid and therefore possibly reliable.

6. Spelling — Again, breaking or sticking to the rules, or you are how you deal with the alphabet. Spelling errors can indicate level of intelligence, education, or, sometimes, dialect.

An example of the first two possibilities opens the story "Flowers For Algernon," by Daniel Keyes:

progris riport 1 — martch 5 1965

Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old and 2 weeks ago was my brithday. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.

The terrible spelling here is appropriate because Charlie Gordon, we will learn, has a developmental disability that, among other things, affects his ability to spell. The spelling is an immediate clue that we are dealing with someone who is a little different, and who lacks the schooling and/or cognitive ability to correct himself.

Richard Wright uses spelling errors to show dialect in his story "Almos' a Man."

Dave struck out across the fields, looking homeward through paling light. What's the usa talkin wid em niggers in the field? Anyhow, his mother was putting supper on the table. Them niggers can't understan nothing. One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn't talk to him as though he were a little boy....

The spelling errors are confined to the moments when Dave is thinking to himself; the non-character narrator otherwise uses proper spelling.

A word of caution: this approach to voice was more popular in the past than it is now. Editors tend to go cross-eyed when they get a story that uses vast amounts of spelling errors, even if it is to communicate voice. It is thought that the writer could convey the same information in other ways, or could use the spelling errors more sparingly. So feel free to incorporate spelling errors into your voice, but realize that, when it comes to the market, you do so at some risk, and you might want to use them only occasionally.

7. Metaphors — The associations made by the voice, or you are how you compare. The character who compares his girlfriend's black hair to "bat lightening," as Richard Brautigan does in his novel The Abortion, is a less conventional character than the one who compares the same head of hair to silk. He is also a character whose mind is less limited than some, and who therefore might belong in a story which includes surprises.

Some examples:

Again, from Richard Brautigan, but this time from the story "1/3, 1/3, 1/3": "One day I was standing in front of my shack, eating an apple and staring at a black ragged toothache sky that was about to rain." And "We lived in a poor part of town where the streets weren't paved. The street was nothing more than a big mud puddle that you had to walk around. The street was of no use to cars anymore. They traveled on a different frequency where asphalt and gravel were more sympathetic."

Or, from Grace Paley's story "Goodbye and Good Luck": "Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten."

You don't want to overdo unusual metaphors, because they could bog the reader down. But a good original metaphor can go a long way toward getting the reader to enjoy the voice, because it will show that the voice does mental acrobatics, and therefore might reveal a mind much vaster and quirky than the ones the reader ordinarily encounters, both in life and in books.

8. And so on — Here is where you should add your own list. I'll begin it for you:

- Length of sentences

- Where paragraphs are broken

- Unusual approaches to common spacing elements, such as paragraph indentations, space breaks, the gaps between words, the spaces after a period, etc.

- Innovative use of punctuation

- Repetition (of words, phrases, punctuation), both within one sentence, and over the course of the piece

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