Voice is that dead give a way that identifies the written word. Think about that for a minute. When most of us read any passage we often translate that passage into an voice. And we may very often use the voices of different actors and actresses we have watched and heard in film or on television. I believe that we have favorite voices we like to speak to us as we read. When I read Llewellyn, he of How Green Was My Valley, I hear Walter Pigeon. On the other hand, I love to use Ronald Coleman for most of the English novels I read. Much depends of the author’s voice.
A writer’s voice imparts that portion of personality to the reader that is easily identifiable. It helps to establish the personalities of his characters. Think about what your speech says about you and your personality. What words do you most often use and how do you use them? Are you parsimonious with your speech or loquacious? And do you constantly send your readers to the dictionary? “Imagine, if you will, a world where there is no…” that conjures up the image of Rod Serling introducing another episode of The Twilight Zone.
“On the morning of the eleventh of November, 1937, precisely at eleven o’clock, some well meaning busybody consulted his watch and loudly announced the hour, with the result that all of us in the dining car felt constrained to put aside drinks and newspapers and spend the two minutes’ silence in rather embarrassed stares at one another or out the window.”
What does that sentence say to you, what person would speak think or speak such a line? It is the opening line from the James Hilton novel Random Harvest and is thought by a man who has received a gentleman’s education at Cambridge. Can you imagine what that same line might be if uttered by the likes of a chimney sweep in a third class car? I imagine the lines would be short and choppy. And I doubt that Mr Hilton could have written a novel about a common chimney sweep, the language of the common man would have been beyond him
“Waking up of a morning was a proper game, because nearly always it was a few minutes too soon, and it was no use of getting up for the sake of getting up, and giving yourself a dogs life for nothing.”
That is from None But The Lonely Heart by Llewellyn and shows a different structure, a different rhythm or cadence of words marching by in ranks. If you were born and raised in Biloxi, Mississippi, whether in the upper classes of society or in working class streets by the shipyards, you would never in multiple millions of years ever say or write either of the two examples above. Robert Penn Warren speech patterns are very different from those of William Faulkner and yet both were raised in the same state and attended the same state university, if memory serves. Notice that last tag, “if memory serves” is classic southern speech.
Thus a writer’s voice is constructed to mirror who he is as much as who his characters are. If you were born and raised in Boston you will never be able to sound like someone who was born and raised in Atlanta. This is not something one can fake. And its faking makes no sense. Like that first date, that first job interview, be yourself, you will be liked for who you are and not who you pretend to be. So who are you? Well, you might record your voice and listen to the playback. Or play and listen to it. Or listen to the sounds you hear. Or say that in a manner you are most familiar. What did I just do? Show you several different ways to arrange words with approximately the same content meaning. Is your voice one that constantly dangers participles and modifiers? That is a very informal style of speech. On the other hand do you give long and involved dissertations when asked a question? What speech mannerisms do, like, have? We, like, went to the store (rising inflection on store) and, like, met Judy and Kath, and like, it was so, like, awesome, and like I almost like, hide my face. As well, like, you should. Once you understand just how it is that you talk with the choice of words, the use of idioms, and mannerisms, then you can think about how you want to use your voice.
So here’s a question for you. Should you attempt to change your voice? The answer is simple, as long as that change is still you. If you want to sound as if you consulted a thesaurus every time you speak, then the answer is no, people will find you out very quickly. But you can use better adjectives and change the order of your sentence structures to effect economy or suggest importance of some modifiers over others. You can opt for a more formal way of speaking but you must speak that way most of the time. Otherwise the result will be one of staleness in discourse and obtuseness in content. Remember, you are now a writer and you must speak with many different voices but we are talking about variations on a common theme. So time to observe others at speech. Try to overhear conversations. Go to the mall or where ever the local teenagers hang out and listen to their speech patterns. So you hear a lot of one, two, and three word sentences that seem to be, for the most part, unfinished? That is they might lack a subject or a very or even both? That is real dialogue you are listening to (notice that I dangled a participle, very normal speech usage). How many of your friends would have said or written, “That is real dialogue to which you are listening.” How so very pretentious. Remember that when you are writing the actions and the descriptions and the discourse (explanation of the action or thoughts of one or more characters) your usage should be very good. But dialogue and those thoughts your characters are undergoing should be in their own words, complete with all the mistakes or lack of formalities.
Voice is that thing you write the descriptions with, the actions, the discourses or explanations (and remember, these are important for the simple reason that action and dialogue alone can not explain everything), they are the mark of your understand of the craft. But dialogue and private thoughts belong to your characters, who are very much a part of you, all those possible alter egos that reside within you. Voice enriches your themes and stories, voice makes your characters real. So spend time observing others. And most of all, don’t rely on film to do your work for you. Yes, you can obtain good insight from the writings of others and the portrayals of actors, but you want to learn from real people. This is why you will need to spend time writing and rewriting your descriptions and discourses, getting the actions just right. And then read the dialogues aloud to yourself and others to see if they sound right. Voice tells us something about character and about the story.