We’ve all heard about the importance of finding your voice as a writer. Maybe you’ve had a critique from an editor who felt the narrative voice wasn’t sharp enough. Or maybe a critique mentioned the author’s voice creeping into the narrative and you found yourself thinking, huh? Isn’t that the voice I worked so hard to develop in the first place?
Well, yes. And no.
We each have a voice that we write in, and it’s as individual as a fingerprint. A novel by Margaret Atwood will sound different than one by Stephen King, and while this might be related to both genre and characters, there’s an ineffable quality to each author’s voice that seeps into their work regardless of how hard they might try to keep it out.
The trick is not to let that voice break the fictional dream you’ve created in your work.
This can happen in several ways: when the author has an agenda they’re trying to slip into the story; when they inadvertently break the POV by stepping in to comment on something; and when they succumb to the temptation to use what Elmore Leonard calls hooptedoodle.
Having an Agenda
When we write a novel, we often (hopefully) have something to say. Let’s call it a theme, the answer to the dreaded so what? question. The line between theme and message, however, is a thin one, and if you’re not subtle enough about your intentions, your reader will sense you’re trying to teach them something and will back away.
Having something to say should not be the same as telling readers what to think. It’s always better to give readers questions to ponder rather than answers to swallow. So, if you have an agenda, shelve it. Give us something to think about. But don’t tell us we have to think like you.
As Ursula le Guin so elegantly puts it, a story’s job is to achieve meaning; it’s a door that opens onto a new world. Messages are for sermons. If all you see in The Hobbit is a message about greed, you’ve missed the magic.
Let the Narrator Narrate
When the author’s voice creeps into a defined POV, you pull your reader out of the fictional dream. It’s jarring. In fact, this gets to the heart of POV, where consistent character voice is crucial to reader immersion.
In any deep POV you choose, you’ll be seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That means everything—from what they notice to the analogies they draw—must be filtered through a lens that is not your own. Douglas Glover calls this language overlay, and it’s one of the most useful POV pointers I’ve ever come across. A sailor will not think the same way as a baker, and this difference can run deep. As an example, the sailor might always have one eye on the weather; a baker might be perpetually attuned to smells. Your teen narrator who suddenly knows the Latin names of plants will pull readers out of the story scratching their heads and wondering how this narrator has such easy access to this specialized information. Not to say it can’t work. If the narrator’s mother is a botanist and has been teaching him the Latin names of plants from the time he was a toddler, it will add another layer to his character. But that has to be established in the story.
An objective POV is all about what can be seen on the surface, so the author’s voice definitely shouldn’t be part of that. And in omniscience, there is still a narrator—but unless it’s you, the reader shouldn’t hear your voice.
Our name might be on the cover of the book we’ve written, but we should never take center stage in our novel unless we’re doing something funky with metafiction. One of the ways we sneak ourselves into our work is with fancy writing that calls attention to itself for no other reason than to wave a flag and say look what I can do.
I’m a huge fan of poetic writing, but I’m also a firm believer in the importance of double duty. Every element in a novel should do more than one thing. A pretty description of the weather should also be a reflection of mood or an ironic foreshadowing or whatever else you have up your sleeve. If you’ve written a whole paragraph about the dark billowing sky, let it also reflect a building dread in the narrator or allow it to serve as a reminder that the body he dropped into the lake might not have been weighted down with enough rocks.
But if that billowing sky is only there for the reader to admire, then it sounds like writing. And as Elmore Leonard also said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Do your readers a favor: either take it out or give it a second job.
Finding Your Voice
The notion of finding your voice has never made sense to me. Your voice is who you are. No matter whose shoes you’re wearing in a particular novel, your voice will come through. If you don’t believe that, try reading one author’s entire body of work. You’ll meet a room full of characters who might all sound different, but there will also be something humming beneath them that they share: the person who created them.
You don’t have to find your voice. You are your voice.
What you have to do is write. A lot. Learn how to handle POV so that you, the author, remain the silent partner in this weird agreement you make with your readers when you bring a world to life. Don’t remind the reader that they’re reading a story. Allow them to believe in the dream.
As for crafting a character’s voice, well… that’s a topic that deserves its own post. Which it will have next time you see me here.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and editor who lives in Vancouver, BC. Her newest book, coauthored with David Griffin Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her novel My Long List of Impossible Things, came out in 2020 with Annick Press. The House of One Thousand Eyes was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and won numerous awards including the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in literary reviews world-wide.