As an editor, I find that a lot of writers don’t fully comprehend what “voice” means in fiction or how it pertains to characterization. So I’ll try my best to explain it in the terms that I understand them.
Just as everyone has their own characteristic way of speaking or expressing themselves, a writer’s characters should also have a distinctive “voice” that clearly comes across in the narrative. How the character reacts or responds in a given situation should be unique to their personality. So choose your nouns and verbs carefully. Being specific about even small details, like facial expressions can create a strong impression of that character’s unique POV. Plus, using a deeper POV can greatly enhance any scene.
Each character’s voice personifies more than their speech or internal-thoughts. The narrative should express it as well. When you write a scene in a certain character’s POV, each sentence in that scene has to read as though it is being experienced, felt, and expressed by that character. Everything that happens in a scene is processed in a unique way by that character, so even the narrative must have “voice.”
Look at these examples from my published novel, IMMORTAL ECLIPSE:
I looked at the cream envelope on the kitchen table. I’d first thought that it was a wedding invitation. I hated being unmarried and having people give me a hard time about it. I didn’t understand why being single and in my late twenties made my married friends give me odd looks. I was just independent.
My gaze rests on the cream envelope lying on the kitchen table. The one I’d first thought was a wedding invitation. Yet another nail in my unmarried-still-tragically-single coffin. Why does being single equate to being tossed in the bargain bin at Target? I’m a sophisticated and independent New Yorker, dammit!
* * *
Each sentence presents the same scenario, but how the character handles it and the way it is shown in the words used to convey her thoughts is different. The first one is “telling” the reader info in a bland way, but in the second version, we get a glimpse of her personality and “voice.”
Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of your narrator, like a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements in any piece of writing.
Here's an example of teen "voice" through close third-person POV from Lucky T by author Kate Brian.
On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, Carrie Fitzgerald stepped out of her walk-in closet wearing a lime green miniskirt. It was so short, she was positive she could never, under any circumstances, bend over in it. Her blond hair was held up in an impromptu bun with a No. 2 pencil. She had just run up to her room with her best friend, Piper Breslin, and begun trying on a multitude of eye-popping outfits that they bought during their crack-of-dawn shopping spree. The Westfield San Francisco shopping center had never been hit that hard that early in the morning before.
“Does this make me look sexy or skanky?” Carrie asked.
Piper checked herself out in Carrie’s floor-length mirror and stuck her tongue out at her reflection. The electric blue tank top that she’d grabbed off Carrie’s reject pile was clinging in all the wrong places. While Carrie had a very sleek figure that would make a supermodel envious, Piper was on the shorter, slightly rounder side.
“How do I put this without hurting your feelings?” Piper said with a smirk. “There’s a hooker in LA that wants her skirt back.”
“Hey, I can’t help that I’m all legs.” Carrie tugged at the hem of the skirt, hoping a few more inches of material would magically grow.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Piper said as she watched Carrie gawk at herself in front of her mirror. She could totally tell that Carrie was admiring the lift of the push-up bra she had bought at Victoria’s Secret.
“Do what? Look like a streetwalker no matter what I put on?” Carrie joked, her brown eyes teasing. “Why do I have to be so tall and skinny?”
* * *
To me, “voice” is more about how a writer has their characters say something by the slang they use, or the character’s tics, gestures, unique way of speaking, and even expressing themselves.
Now compare the following two examples, which should help inspire your creative muse. The first is shallow writing with lots of telling and hardly any “voice” or sensory details.
Sam Harrington glanced up from his comic book. A fat man with brown hair and eyes and a big nose walked into the bookstore. The man was wearing jeans with thick socks and sandals with a faded T-shirt. He walked past the bookcases and toward Sam.
“Can I help you?” Sam asked as the man approached.
“Here to pick up my book,” he said loudly.
“Sorry, this week’s order hasn’t come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next—”
The man leaned across the counter. “What do you mean my book didn’t come in yet?” he asked raucously.
Sam opened his mouth to respond but stopped.
The guy straightened up and tugged on his shirt. “Where is my book?” he repeated more calmly.
It was a slow day at the Book Shark. Sam Harrington stood at one end of the bookstore in the self-help section, stuffing last week’s shipment of books onto the shelves. The bell over the door chimed and Sam glanced up. A waft of car exhaust and brewing coffee entered the room as the door opened.
The customer maneuvered around the bookshelves with a heavy limp. When he caught a glimpse of the man’s clothing, Sam’s eyebrows rose. It was the middle of summer and the guy had on jeans with socks and leather Birkenstocks. Crazy.
Sam hurried past a guy sitting on the floor reading a book and an old lady with blue hair—well, it looked blue—scanning the covers on the romance novels on sale.
Sam walked behind the counter and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
“Here to pick up my book,” the man said.
“Sorry, this week’s order hasn’t come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next—”
The stocky man leaned over the glass counter, and glared down at Sam. His dark-brown hair fell into his hazel eyes, and the man pushed the strands aside with a pudgy hand. He lowered his head, his breath soured by stale beer and cigarettes. “Whaddya mean my book didn’t come in yet?” His bulbous nose twitched with anger.
Sam’s shoulders slumped. Great. Another pissed off customer. It’s not my fault the freaking shipment is always late.
Before Sam could respond, the man straightened, tugging at the collar of his faded Aerosmith T-shirt in an attempt to collect himself. “Now. Where’s my book on ritual human sacrifices, boy?”
* * *
Do you see what I mean? The second example clearly reveals “voice” in both the speech, internal-thougts, and the narrative, and even a Deeper POV.
"Voice" can add an extra layer of characterization to any novel, and can avoid making your character seem like the dreaded Mary-Sue type.
Yes, writing with Deeper POV and "voice" often adds more words to your prose, but it is far more interesting and tells the reader a lot more about what's going on and reveals a character's personality aka "voice."
Let’s use another example in order to clarify what I mean. Here’s a snippet from my wildly popular novel, LOST IN STARLIGHT, before revision (no "voice") and after revision. The heroine is writing a story for the school paper on a new guy at school, and she is confused by her attraction to him.
Please compare the two examples.
When my last class ends, I go to my locker to get my Trig textbook. I hear the doors at the end of the hall bang open, releasing students and I feel it letting in a gust of air. I notice fluorescent lights overhead.
Across the hallway and a few lockers over from mine, I can see Zach and Hayden. I look at a red spray-painted slash on the metal door. I decide that someone must’ve spray painted Hayden’s locker again.
While opening my locker, I notice Hayden’s staring at me. I discern that he is taller than most boys.
I can see he has a messenger bag in one hand, and I notice drumsticks in his back pocket. I lift my hand to wave.
As I watch him, he doesn’t respond. He just continues gazing at me with strange eyes. I feel my head go woozy. It makes my limbs feel jittery. Frustration and confusion assault me for having feelings for someone like him. And I wonder why he is staring.
I feel a wave of nervousness because he is watching me. I wonder if there is something wrong. From the corner of my eye, I see him lean into the wall.
I think Hayden’s stare is unsettling. I know there’s something about that guy’s smile that attracts girls. I decide that no one can resist Hayden Lancaster. Maybe not even me.
I see him watching me, and I feel heat on my skin. I notice Hayden isn’t looking at my chest like most boys, which I know will only complicate my feelings.
When my last class ends, I stop at my locker to get my Trig textbook. The doors at the end of the hall bang open, releasing students for the day and letting in a gust of warm air. Several obtrusive fluorescent lights flicker overhead.
Across the hallway and a few lockers over from mine are Zach and Hayden. An angry red spray-painted slash taints the metal door. Some jerk must’ve tagged Hayden’s locker again.
While opening my own locker, I’m suddenly aware that Hayden’s blatantly staring at me. Hard to miss. He’s like a man among boys, at least in his flawless physique. His messenger bag is in one hand, and drumsticks stick out of his back pocket.
I lift my hand in a hesitant little wave. He doesn’t return my gesture, just continues gazing at me through those thick lashes that frame his unique eyes. My head goes all woozy. Even my limbs feel jittery. Frustration and confusion are warring inside me for having any feelings whatsoever for someone like him. And what’s with the stare?
A wave of nervousness hits hard. Is there toilet paper hanging out of my jeans? Food stuck in my teeth? Or have Frankenstein bolts suddenly sprouted from my neck?
Being on Hayden’s radar is a little unsettling. I admit there’s something about Mr. Puppy Hero’s rare smiles, lopsided with an edge, that draw girls to him like insects buzzing a bug zapper. For better or worse, no one can resist Hayden Lancaster. Not even me.
Our gazes lock for just one second, and heat rushes beneath my skin. Hayden isn’t gawking at my chest like most boys. He’s only looking at my face, which further complicates my feelings for this strange dude.
* * *
Did you immediately detect the character’s unique “voice” in that last example?
Now one last thing, I think even secondary characters need a distinct personality that separates them from other characters.
This next longer excerpt is from my New adult novel, SMASH INTO YOU, shows how even a secondary character can have their own (and should!) personality, too. Vanessa has a very unique voice, as well as my narrator.
My new roommate and I were polar opposites. Her name was Vanessa Carmichael and she apparently guzzled energy drinks by the gallon, and her tousled copper hair looked like the “before” picture in a Pantene commercial. At least she seemed nice and normal. I wouldn’t have to worry about her doing anything weird like stealing my underwear or taking cell phone pictures of me while I slept to post on Instagram.
While Vanessa talked a mile a minute, folded clothes on her bed, and sipped a Red Bull, I inspected her—incredibly cluttered—side of the room. I flicked a glance at the red poster with that lame phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” in white lettering over her headboard. Vanessa had fastened a corkboard to the wall above her desk, pinned with snapshots of her high school debate team and blue ribbon awards for science and math. Piles of Old Navy hoodies and graphic shirts and bell-bottom cords were scattered on her dark green comforter.
“…then I laughed so hard, I nearly peed in my hemp underwear…Hello? Are you even listening to me?”
I glanced up. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. What were you saying?”
Vanessa pushed up her glasses. “You don’t care that I took the right side? Because I like being closer to the window and you came a day late—”
“It’s fine,” I said, shifting on my bed and lowering the novel I’d been reading.
“If it’s gonna be an issue, I can move my stuff,” Vanessa said.
“I don’t care. Honest.”
Vanessa took a swig of her drink. She blinked her big owlish eyes behind square-framed glasses. “Awesome. My roommate last year was sooo picky. She was always borrowing my stuff without asking, and making out with her emo boyfriend…”
Chatty Vanessa would be my cellmate for the next year. Oh, yay. I already wanted to duct tape her mouth shut.
Lifting my paperback, I shoved both earbuds into my ears and turned on my iPod, the soft melody drowning out her voice. My roommate had started yakking the moment I entered the room after my meeting with Ms. Greene. Her favorite topic? Herself.
In the first ten minutes, I’d learned that Vanessa was a middle child, president of the Earth Matters!—environmental issues—club on campus, wrote The Vampire Diaries fanfiction, used the word “awesome” a lot, and had a boyfriend named Levi who attended MIT.
“…it’s hard with Levi living so far away. We only get to see each other on break. Over the summer we went to this awesome Comic-Con that featured Marvel’s The Avengers in San Francisco.” Vanessa stuffed a hoodie into a dresser drawer. “And you’ll never guess who was there!”
My turn to talk. Yay.
I stretched my arms over my head, lowering the volume on my iPod. “The amazing writer and director Joss Whedon?”
“No!” She waved both hands in the air like a crazed fangirl. “Even better...Loki, Tom Hiddleston! Omigod, he’s even hotter in person and so nice. I asked him to pose for a selfie with me and, of course, he did. I posted it on Facebook and I got a hundred likes within an hour. It was so awesome—”
“Really? Do you have the pic?” I asked, trying to make an effort.
Vanessa rewarded me with a five-second pause while she dug through her slouchy purse to retrieve her iPhone. “Um, it might take me a while to find it....”
“Oh! Awesome! I got two new reviews on my fanfic page.” She stared at her phone, scrolling through the screen with a sparkly green fingernail. “Crapola. I can’t find it.”
“No worries,” I said, pulling my comforter over my body.
* * *
I hope this post helps you revise your own work. If you’re still confused about “voice,” please leave a comment or shoot me an email and I’d be happy to help.