Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Voice in Fiction – Vague, but Vital

By Ann Harth, @Annharth 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Every writer has their own voice--even if they haven't found it just yet. Ann Harth shares tips on how to develop both your author, and your characters' voice.

Ann Harth writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Strong, interesting female characters creep into many of her books, and many arrive with a sense of humor.

She taught writing for the Australian College of Journalism for eight years before taking the leap into freelance writing and structural editing work.

Ann is the Far North Queensland coordinator for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She’s had a number of fiction and non-fiction children’s books published in Australia and the UK and over 130 short stories sold internationally.

When not tapping the keys, Ann stuffs a notebook into her pack and searches for remote places to camp, hike or explore.

Take it away Ann...

Voice can be an elusive concept but we tend to throw the term around freely. 
We’re looking for a fresh voice.
It’s important to develop your voice.
We also hide it in the middle of a list of similarly vague terms.
Pay attention to the tone, mood, voice and style.
Make sure your style, tone and voice are consistent.
What is voice? Ask half a dozen writers and you could get at least six different answers.

I am giving you mine. I have two – the author’s voice and the character’s voice.

The Author's Voice 

Ann Harth
The easiest way for me to define the author’s voice is with a visual.

Let’s pretend your story is a stack of pancakes. The ingredients you put into your pancakes – flour, egg, milk, salt, butter (blueberries?) – are the elements of your story. You combine plot, characters, dialogue, setting, conflict and resolution and throw the mixture into a pan, a little at a time. It cooks; you turn, fiddle and adjust the heat. When they are golden brown and your mouth is watering, you flip them onto a plate and admire the steaming stack. Your story is complete. Or is it?

You take your first bite, expecting culinary perfection. It’s okay, but something’s missing.


Voice is the rich, delicious syrup that soaks into the crevices and the pores of your story and flavors the entire experience. 

(Here's more on Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Narrative Voice)

Three tips for finding your author’s voice

Be yourself. Your voice is your personality. It’s how you creep into your stories and become familiar to your readers. This may have to do with the topics you choose to write about, your structure, characters, language or even settings. Your voice is as unique as you are.

Choose topics or storylines that are important to you. Avoid writing a book because it’s a hot topic and you think it might sell. If you have no interest in werewolves, don’t even try it. They will not cooperate. If small aliens and their quest to levitate bore you, run away. It won’t work for you.

If, however, you have dreamt about a fantasy world where children are in charge, adults follow orders, and dopey St. Bernards take care of all menial labor, create it. If it means something to you and you love the story, the concept and the possibilities, dive in. You have found something you can be passionate about and it will be apparent in your writing.

Write as you speak. This can be difficult at first and often intimidating, but trust yourself. You are the only person who can write like you.

A great way to practice this is with free writing. Write for at least ten minutes a day. Let your thoughts pour onto the page without censure, editing or even spellchecking. Your quest is not to find correctness, but your voice. You may write in short bursts of emotion or with languid thoughts leading lazily into the next. Your writing will be unfettered with insecurity or fear as no one will ever see this. The more you practice, the stronger your voice will become.

Speak to your audience. Once you’ve found your voice, it’s important to be able to alter it slightly to suit your readers.

You probably wouldn’t write a letter to your in-law’s like this:

Thanks for the shirt.

Your twelve year old daughter might be a little confused if you left the following note on the fridge.
Dear Ms. Harth,

Please find your lunch in the refrigerator and your bus money on the bench. I shall have transportation waiting for you in the agreed upon place, subsequent to your final class.

Mrs. Harth

These are fairly extreme examples of altering a voice and usually your changes will be more subtle. But even though you may modify your writing according to varying age and interest groups, your voice can still ring true. 

(Here's more on What You Reading For? A Blog Post on Voice)

A Character's Voice

When I finally started to develop my author’s voice, I was thrilled. But my journey was far from over. It was time to work on my characters’ voices. 

My voice, as comfortable as I was with it, was not appropriate for an eight-year-old boy with a passion for soccer. If I didn’t want all of my young characters to sound like a middle aged woman, I had to back off and let them have their heads. I was still telling the story but I was telling it through the eyes of the main character.

Two tips for finding your character’s voice

Know your character. To engage your reader, it’s important to create a three-dimensional and appealing main character. How about Evelyn? A good place to start is to get to know Evelyn as well or even better than you know yourself. Interview her and write down her answers to your questions, keeping them for future reference.

Ask about family, friends, home. Discover her insecurities and fears but also her dreams and wishes. Walk through a day with Evelyn. Eat breakfast with her, recite nursery rhymes in the shower, feed the dog and chase the cat. Feed the cat and chase the dog. Hang out with this character over a few days and find out what makes her laugh and cry and go weak at the knees.

As you get to know Evelyn, imagine her voice inside your head. Get her to write a letter or two and write as she speaks. When her voice is clearly in your mind, you will be able to integrate this into your story – her story.

Write through your main character’s viewpoint. Once you and Evelyn have become bosom-buddies, step aside and make some room for her. Make sure that your readers can see, hear and experience only what Evelyn does. Put them firmly inside Evelyn’s mind to share her thoughts and impressions. This will invite your readers to identify closely with Evelyn and care about her. If they care about her, they will become more involved in the story. 

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Develop Character Voices)

A Final Word

So what is voice?

Voice is a tool that conveys the personality of a writer or character.

How do you develop a strong and unique voice?

Be yourself. No one else can.

Bernice Peppercorn’s imagination fills her mind and her notebooks with adventure and intrigue. She sees crimes where there are none and races to the local police station daily to fulfil her civic duty.

When a real robbery is committed in town, Bernice dives into detective mode and stumbles across vital clues that could help find the thieves. No one believes her except Ike, a one-legged fisherman who lives down at the wharf.

Bernice Takes a Plunge is an exciting and humorous adventure for middle grade readers.

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