Voice is one of the most elusive aspects of writing. If you struggle with it, you are not alone. Just understanding what it is can be a challenge. When a writer speaks of voice, do they mean the way a character talks, the way the MC comes across to the reader or something deeper, something that infuses the story from beginning to end?
To me Voice can be summed up in a single word: authenticity. Voice is when the writer blends their unique writing style with their intimate character knowledge and viewpoint to elevate story telling into an actual, moving experience for the reader. Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.
A strong voice is the writer’s devotion coming through. Their portrayal of the POV character entrances the reader–every word, every description, every thought and action of the MC rings true. Real. Authentic.
The focal point of Voice centers on the POV character. This authenticity and realism transforms the main character into someone the reader believes in, cares about and roots for. A connection is forged that cannot be broken because to the reader, the character and his plight feels real.
Missing the mark with Voice creates a ‘watered down’ effect where the MC’s essence isn’t captured as completely. A weak voice is dangerous, because the reader will not be emotionally invested as they read…if they even choose to read on. Several things can contribute to a weak voice.
The writer doesn’t know the character well enough
This is the difference between asking, “What would someone do in this situation?” and “What would my main character do in this situation?” The MC is not just anyone–they are unique. Their footprint alone must be placed in every action and decision. If the writer doesn’t know the character well enough, the reader will not believe in the character’s choices and actions, or be bored by the MC’s ‘generic’ feel and predictability. KNOW YOUR CHARACTER AS WELL AS YOU KNOW YOURSELF.
The writer has doubts about their ability to tell the story
As writers, doubt can be difficult to banish. We tend to analyze our skills and abilities constantly. After all, this is a business where being told, ‘Sorry, this isn’t what we want’ happens all to frequently. Rejection often leads to self doubt and reevaluation. It’s the nature of what we do.
However, doubt must never enter the picture when writing a novel. Pushing away negatives may be hard, but it must be done to achieve the authority needed to bring that compelling voice into play. The core belief that this story is ours because we know the characters inside and out is imperative for a successful voice. We then prove it by writing a story that comes alive for the reader. If the writer doesn’t believe, the voice will suffer as a result.
The writer is not ‘all in’
Writing is all about pushing the envelope. How far can we push our characters, how far can we push the reader? There is a fine line between completely captivating the reader and forcing disbelief by going too far. We cannot be afraid to walk this line. If the writer holds back, the voice is dulled by hesitation.
Making choices based on how a novel might be received, pulling punches to soften a scene or ‘save’ the character, pushing the writer’s agenda to preach (yes, sin #2)–all of these sabotage the story and weaken the voice. Don’t be too risk-adverse. Commit and give it everything you’ve got.
Poorly chosen POV
POV is closely tied to the Writer’s Authenticity. After all, the POV chosen will have a huge impact on how the story is received by readers. Done right, it proves that the writer has nailed the story telling. The wrong POV changes the focus and delivery, and not for the better. POV hurdles often come in three forms:
-The POV chosen does not do the story justice
Sometimes the choice of POV for the story doesn’t paint the picture as well as it should. Each POV will change the perspective being offered, so choosing the right one for the story is important. First Person puts the reader right into the character’s head, but they are limited to personal knowledge only. Omniscient POV tells us everything, but requires a deft hand to wield or character transitions end up as drunken head-hopping. Third Person can sometimes create a good in-between, but is that enough? Bottom line–consider all aspects of the story and decide which POV (and which character) can deliver the most gripping account.
–POV is shared between characters because the writer can’t decide who’s story it is
Sometimes the writer falls in love with their characters to the point where they cannot bear to leave anyone’s story untold. The result is often muddled plot lines and the reader feeling unsure about who to care about most. *Note, this is different from intentional POV sharing in order to provide a cohesive tale of multiple characters.*
If the writer doesn’t know who’s story it is, how will the reader? Frustration will ensue and the writer will be lucky to retain the reader’s interest. TAKE THE TIME TO KNOW THE STORY. If the story line is nailed down, deciding who’s POV to concentrate on is easy, because one character and one plot line naturally stands out as the strongest. Be ruthless to the other characters. Not everyone can sit in the driver’s seat.
–The writer is inexperienced in the chosen POV
Some POVs are harder to master than others. Omni or First person are often viewed as the most difficult to get right and unfortunately inexperience shows. Sometime a writer is better of sticking to what they know. But what if they feel the story’s power will be diluted if told through any other POV?
In that case, Practice, practice, practice. Read widely in the POV, and find good critique partners. Other writers who can offer honesty and mentorship will help the writer learn the POV inside and out! Time and energy put into developing our craft always pays off.
What are your thoughts on the importance of POV & Voice? Can you think of other ways where improper handling causes power to be leeched from the story and lead character?