My Voice, Your Voice, His Voice, Her Voice

We hear a lot about voice in writing, and it's one of those hard-to-define things that make a book readable or not. There are some rules, like not switching voice in the middle of a paragraph and such, but the talent for creating voice goes far beyond that. At its best, a character's voice grabs the reader from the first page of a book, making him want to hear that character's story. And nobody can teach you how that happens.

I've been pulled into stories that I never thought I would: Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas pleased me even though I'm not much for reading about struggles against otherworldly creatures. Dexter grabbed me even though I couldn't believe I would want to know more about a serial killer. John Rain, Barry Eisler's hit man, is always welcome on my bookshelf, even though he kills people for a living. Voice: the ability to make the reader want to listen, even when the story is not her usual cup of tea.

Of course people respond to different voices. A few authors who usually capture me with voice from page one are Fannie Flagg, Ariana Franklin, Laura Lippman, Craig Johnson, Alice Duncan, and the men mentioned above. Sometimes the plot doesn't quite deliver, but it hardly matters because it's so much fun to listen to the characters. I read lots of authors of lesser voice too, but those are usually straight mysteries and thrillers that make up for the lack of "voice pull" with plot devices, gadgets, imagination, and lots of adventure.

It's the "vocal" books that stick with me, though, long after I've forgotten the details of that doom-approaches thriller or that closed-room mystery. It's the biggest thrill in reading for me to open a new author's work and find myself pulled in by voice right away.

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Comment by I. J. Parker on June 6, 2009 at 12:11am
I work with limited third person most of the time, and I do a great deal of internalizing. In third person, there is, of course, an objective narrator. In first person, the very choice of diction and sentence structure is part of the character as much as the content of his/her speeches and thoughts. Many authors make an easy choice with first person point of view: they cast themselves more or less in the protagonist's role. It gets harder and much more interesting when the protagonist is someone else.
Comment by Eric Christopherson on June 5, 2009 at 2:17pm
Yeah, James Wood gets into precisely that weird territory quite a lot in How Fiction Works.
Comment by Jon Loomis on June 5, 2009 at 11:28am
Voice is probably an extension of character.

Voice is more complicated than that, IMO--in first person it IS character, pretty much. In third person it's some kind of weird liminal territory between author and POV character. Done well it's subtle and interesting, but never quite as lapel-grabbingly compelling as a great first person voice.
Comment by I. J. Parker on June 5, 2009 at 5:30am
Voice is probably an extension of character.
Fascination with Dexter (didn't happen to me) is likely to be the gory stuff. Let's face it, there was a reason for the Romans to gather at the colosseum and for passersby to stop at an accident scene. (That should take care of the whole violence bit in books).
Comment by B.R.Stateham on June 5, 2009 at 2:45am
So Peg, which of the two is more important to you. Voice? Or Plot?

Personally, I think I'll lean toward Voice. Most of the time it's not really the story that counts for a reader. It's how the story is told that grabs'em. I remember watching Richard Burton reading the New York City phonebook on Johnny Carson years ago. The voice, the way he delivered, was hypnotic. I actually wanted him to read the entire book. I was totally captivated.
Comment by Jon Loomis on June 5, 2009 at 2:03am
I agree that voice is incredibly important, particularly in first person (though we also do a lot of sneaky voicing in third person). I take exception to the notion that no one can teach a writer how to construct a readable voice, though. I do it thirty-two weeks a year.
Comment by Dana King on June 4, 2009 at 11:54pm
I'm much like you. Voice can carry a less than stellar story, and a good story that lacks an appropriate voice will seem flat with me.

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