I’m thrilled to have good friend and YA Author Janet Gurtler here today. Janet’s newest book, I’M NOT HER is a compelling story of sisters. A terrible cancer diagnosis forces Tess to reevaluate her complex feelings for her perfect sister as she’s pushed into Kristina’s popularity spotlight both at school and at home. Forced to carry an unfair burden of responsibility as her family’s strength crumbles, Tess must fight to remain herself and let her own light shine.
Voice is a huge component of I’M NOT HER, allowing Tess to stand out amid such devastating circumstances, and so Janet is here to share thoughts on this critical, yet complex, element of fiction.
JANET: One thing I heard a lot in the beginning phases of my writing journey (and still hear now) was how important voice was to selling a novel. How imperative nailing voice is to writing a good story. Editors and agents often speak about how they’re looking for a strong voice. Well, I thought back then, I can easily do that. Right?
Of course, first I needed to figure out exactly what this elusive voice thing was. And soon I discovered nailing voice often requires extensive research and always requires careful thought about who your characters are. And how you write best.
It’s the way a story is told, a distinct style of writing. Maybe you use short choppy sentences and lots of sentence fragments (Hello, Me!) or perhaps your voice sings with long lush prose. The voice creates a tone and the author conveys their own voice in the manner they write in. Clear as my son’s fishbowl that he hasn’t changed the water in for three weeks?
Voice also helps elicit emotion from the reader and sets the mood. It’s not so much what you say, but HOW you say it. There are intelligent humorous voices in Young Adult fiction, like John Green. There are lush literary voices like Malinda Lo. Discovering who you are as a writer and being true to that is part of finding your own voice.
Voice pulls readers into a story by making a story real, no matter what the story is about. Real applies to paranormal and dystopian fiction as well as contemporary. Voice makes characters leap off pages and come alive in a reader’s mind. Voice conjures up vivid, visual settings and invites readers along for the ride. How do you show that to your reader?
Take a moment to listen to the voice in the opening of Libba Bray’s book, GOING BOVINE:
That small passage is ripe with voice, both Libba’s voice and the voice of her narrator, a sixteen year old boy named Cameron. Right away we kind of get a sense of who Cameron is because of what he tells us and the way he tells us.
Voice embodies the way a character speaks. What they say as well as how they say it. So voice is partly how a character sees his world. A fifteen year old boy does not have the same reaction to events or the same conversations a 25 year old woman would. This character doesn’t use the same words or have the same thoughts as another. The dialogue of different characters should be distinct. Use their voices to convey your own.
An eighteen year old girl who lives on a farm in Canada is not going to view the world the same way an eighteen year old girl from New York is. Nor will they sound alike when they talk. So as an author we need to understand our characters in order to properly convey their voices, which in turn helps to create an author voice.
Character interviews and exercises are helpful if you’re inclined to do that sort of thing, but also try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process. In I’M NOT HER, my main character Tess, is an introverted artist. To convey this I tried to show her viewing the world the way she would as an artist. Here’s a passage where Tess is staring at her sister in her hospital bed:
Her cheek bones look more angular and her collarbones jut out from her blue hospital gown. I’d have to use different techniques to sketch her now. Her essence has changed. She’s less charcoal and more shading.
Another character might describe her completely differently. If Tess were a boy, she might have simply said, “She looks skinny and gross.”
When we write characters it’s important to try to be authentic to their voices. Characters likely do not share the same morals of the author, or even the same likes and dislikes. Sometimes our characters have to say or do things we may fully disapprove of. And that’s okay. An author’s experiences and beliefs might naturally flow into character and story, but learning to filter or rework them to suit a story or character, is part of the conscious process of voice. Listen to your characters.
An author may use multiple first person narrators or tell the story as a memory from an omniscient narrator. The voice of the story is definitely shaped by the POV the author writes in.
Have fun with voice. Make it your own. Better yet, make it shine!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.