Doublespeak: A Look at Voice

Doublespeak: A Look at Voice
Terry Odell


Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay

I’m looking at two aspects of voice today: Character and Author.

Part A. Character Voices, or “Give Them Their Own.”

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same “Talking to a Child” voice. Obviously, it doesn’t bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it’s consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn’t just a one-time deal.

It’s important in a book that characters not only sound like themselves, but don’t sound like each other. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. Ideally, a reader should be able to know who’s speaking from the dialogue on the page without beats, tags, or narrative.

Cowboys don’t talk like artists, who don’t talk like sailors, who don’t talk like politicians. And men don’t talk like women. They’re hard-wired differently. I’m a woman, and in my first drafts the dialogue will lean in that direction. After I’ve written my male characters’ dialogue, I go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

A few tips to make your characters sound like themselves.

Don’t rely on the “clever.” Dialect is a pitfall—more like the Grand Canyon. If you’re relying on phonetic spelling to show dialect, you’ll stop your readers cold. Nobody wants to stop to sound out words. You can show dialects or accents with one or two word choices, or better yet, have another character notice. “She heard the Texas in his voice” will let the reader know.

Give your characters a few simple “go to” words or phrases. For me, this is often deciding what words my character will use when he or she swears (since I write a lot of cops and covert ops teams, swearing is a given). In a recent book, I’d fixated on characters “rocking” this, and “rocking” that. I went back and adjusted things so only one character used that expression.

Keep the narrative “in character” as well. This especially includes internal monologue, and even extends to narrative. Keep your metaphors and similes in character. If your character’s a mechanic, he’s not likely to think of things in terms of ballet metaphors.

What your character says and does reveals a lot to your readers. Workshops I’ve attended have given out the standard character worksheets (which have me screaming and running for the hills), but it’s the “other” questions that reveal your character. What’s in her purse? What’s in his garbage? What does he/she order at Starbucks? Would he/she even be caught dead in a Starbucks? James Scott Bell’s workshops include excellent examples.

How do you keep your characters distinct? How do you get to know them? Do you need to know a lot before you start, or are you (like I am) someone who learns about them as you go?

Which brings me to Part B: Authorial Voice, or “Stay the Hell off the Page.”

After  a presentation I gave for a local book club, one member said she’d read one of my books. Her comment was, “You write the same way you talk.” And, after I sent a chapter to my critique partners, one said, “This sounds very Terry.” That, I think, sums up “voice.”

Any author starting out tries to write what she thinks a writer should sound like. She might work hard to make her characters sound unique, and true to their backgrounds, but all the other stuff—the narrative parts where the character isn’t speaking—sounds stilted. It sounds “writerly.”

But what the characters say isn’t the same as “Authorial Voice.” It’s all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break. Can anyone confuse Harlan Coben with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she’s writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her “In Death” futuristics as JD Robb.

Your authorial voice will develop over time and (one hopes) will become recognizable. It’s important to learn the ‘rules’ of writing before trying to be distinctive. In the art world, we recognize artists by their style. The Star Spangled Banner opens countless events, yet even though the notes are the same, they presentations vary. Immensely.

Before artists of any format—music, poetry, prose, acting, create their own recognizable style, they learn the basics. Before your voice will develop, you have to write. And write. And write some more.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you’re reading. Find a passage that’s filled with narrative. How do you, or the author in question deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there’s an outsider taking over? If it’s a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it’s serious, the author shouldn’t be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he’s likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

You want your voice to be recognized, but not intrude on the story. If you want the reader caught up in the story and the characters, you, the author have no business being on the page. Every word on the page should seem to come from the characters, whether it’s dialogue or narrative. You’re the conduit for the story and the characters. You’re there so they shine, not the reverse.

It takes practice—and courage, because you have to put “you” on the page, and not the “writer.” But when you finish, you should have your own special work. You won’t be a cookie-cutter clone. Rule of thumb—if it sounds “writerly”, cut it. When the words flow from the fingertips, that’s probably your own voice coming through. Let it sing. In the workshops I’ve given on Voice, I hand out pictures and ask the participants to write something the picture invokes. Then, they swap pictures and have another go at it. When the pairs read their works, despite the trigger being the same picture, their stories and voices are never anything alike.

What about you, TKZers? Any distinctive authorial voices you’d like to share? Any authors who have mastered the characterization voices?

Deadly Options Terry Odell

I’m thrilled that Deadly Options, my 10th Mapleton mystery is now available for immediate sale in both digital and trade paperback formats.



31 thoughts on “Doublespeak: A Look at Voice

  1. Terry, thanks for the thoughtful post. My view is that unless one is writing in an omniscient style for comedic purposes, like Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams; or commentary-omniscient like Dickens, author voice should not be a distinct item. It’s always filtered through character. Narrative portions should sound like what the character would think, etc.

    Thus, voice will be similar in a series book because it’s the same character. But in a stand alone, the voice should have its own distinct sound because it’s a different character.

    • I totally agree with you about the importance of character. I also say authors have their own voices, especially in narrative. It comes through in cadence, in sentence structure, and often in word/phrase choices. I especially notice it in JD Robb/Nora Roberts. She’s writing a multitude of series and characters, and her characters have their own voices, but her own voice (or style?) carries into all her books.

      • For example, I’d point to two of King’s novellas in the same collection, Different Seasons: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.” Both brilliantly written, but two absolutely distinct voices. Different vocabulary and sentence structure, as befits a lifer in prison v. a successful writer. You would never know it was the same author without the name on the cover!

        • Thanks, Jim. Speaking in generalizations, means there will always be exceptions, and King’s a good one.

  2. Thanks for this piece, Terry. It’s an excellent capture on voice. Makes me think of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules For Writing which is wisdom all writers should know before breaking the rules. He sums up his list with, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

  3. Thanks for another helpful piece, Terry. I try to be careful to have my characters speak according to their education and status. Wealthy, well-educated persons would probably not use folksy phrases, but their cook might. Also, I have a real problem reading historical novels where the characters use “modern” phrases: “I tell it like it is,” said Lord Mortimer. In 1890? I doubt it.

    • So true, Elaine. Cowboys don’t talk like ballerinas, and the time setting is another thing to watch out for. I write contemporary, but given my age, I have to ask for help from people who are the age of my characters when I need current slang. “Groovy” probably won’t cut it with the 30-somethings.

  4. Roddy Doyle is one of my favorite authors and one who I think has mastered character voice for the protagonists in his novels. He penetrates their thinking and circumstances so the reader feels how and why characters develop.
    Two good examples:
    Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (A 10-year-old boy).
    The Woman Who Walked into Doors (A physically abused wife).

    I think the characters’ voices in his short story collection, “Bull Fighting” are not distinctive, rather they represent a collective voice for the middle-aged male POV characters. That repetition wore me down; I felt like I was reading the same story over and over.

    • Thanks, TL. I’ll have to check into those. There are some authors who are so stuck in their authorial voices that the characters all sound the same.

  5. Thanks, Terry, for a great post. This is something I continue to work on improving, since I have several characters from a very similar background.

    I especially liked your quantitation on the difference between dialogue with men and women. If your reduce the dialogue for women to men by 25% (100% to 75%), you would increase the dialogue for men to women by 33% (75% to 100%). I will mention that when my wife tells me I talk too much.

    • Too much math, Steve! All I know is men tend to use fewer words, fewer qualifiers, and (something I go back and forth with one of my critique partners about) when they ask questions, they’re not really asking questions, but rather “politely worded statements of fact.” So I don’t include question marks, especially when my cops are talking.

      I touched upon some of these differences in my “Men are not women with chest hair” posts.

  6. I agree with Jim. I write in my character’s voice, not mine. Thus, my two series sound distinct. As you point out, a reader could tell I wrote both series by the sentences, paragraph breaks, cadence, etc., but the narrative voices are vastly different. Which is why “voice” is so difficult to explain.

    • Exactly, Sue, and almost impossible to teach. In my workshops, it’s more about showing how voices differ rather than being able to teach specifics, because it’ll be different for every writer.

  7. Excellent analysis, Terry.

    The difference between the author’s voice and the characters’ voices is tough to grasp. As you say, it requires writing and more writing to develop to the point where an author is no longer conscious of their own voice. Yet, at the same time, they must make their characters’ voices unique and distinct.

  8. Terry and all, since I decide whether to continue reading a book when I’m a chapter or so “in,” I agree: voice is key. Author voice or style first, characters, second. If there’s a third determinant, it is challenge, or situation. It all must ring right, true, essential.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Carole. I’m a character first reader, but everything has to mesh. Anything that make me stop and say, “Oh, I’m reading a book” will cause me to put the book down.

  9. Thanks for the insights, Terry. “Voice” is such an elusive concept for me. Your post helps me think it through.

    I’m currently working on the third book in my cozy mystery series and I’m introducing two little girls, ages ten and nine, into the story. I’m having enormous fun writing the chapters that have the children in them. It’s definitely a case of the characters taking over and writing the story in their words, the way they want it to be told.

    • I’m glad it was helpful. Authorial voice is elusive, for sure.
      I have a few books with kids in them, and yes, they do have a tendency to upstage everyone else!

  10. Such an important topic, Terry. Your post does a fine job of discussing it. Voice is crucial to the reader experience, it’s part of the “magic” in fiction. Man, can it be hard to learn. I spent a couple of years working one-on-one with talented SF and mystery author Mary Rosenblum, in an online course. She knew me already, so she went the extra mile, and we spent real time on voice.

    A few years later, I’d hired her to be my developmental editor for my novel, Empowered: Agent. After rewriting the novel based beta readers’ feedback, I sent it to her. Later that same morning, she emailed back, “we need to talk.” I called her on a break from work. She told me she read the first page and stopped, because she didn’t want to continue until I’d fixed a fundamental problem. My first-person POV’s voice was wrong. It sounded like a college-educated middle class person, not a 21-year old former convict.

    I knew at once what she meant, and spent the next five weeks completely rewriting the novel. It was the hardest thing I’d done, writing wise, at that point, but the book really benefited from it.

    Thanks for this reminder of why character voice is so important!

    • Sounds similar to the book I mentioned where everyone sounded like they were talking to a 5-year-old. Only that was written by a Big Name Author, and I’m sure her editors weren’t going to tell her to rewrite it. That seems to be her voice, and her readers don’t mind. But I did, and stopped reading her books.

      • This is one of the things that drives another writing friend of mine crazy–that books like the one you mention, still find a huge audience. For my part, I’m going with character voice that’s right for that character or characters (if it’s multi-POV), because nailing that is important to me.

  11. I’m going to introduce another example … Authors who take over a series when the creator dies. I’ve tried several, but usually abandon them because the new author might get the characterization, but they (for me) don’t nail the original author’s voice.

  12. Author voice is probably the least understood element of writing. Even editors get it wrong all the time. I’ve been told by editors that my true voice is snarky, action/adventure breezy, and dark and serious according to what I was writing because I wrote the main character so well. A series viewpoint hero’s narrative voice is rarely the author’s voice. That’s pretty dang obvious if the author has two or more series, particularly if they aren’t the same subgenre. If the author is doing a good job with viewpoint, the author remains invisible in the book. If the author is doing a poor job and all the viewpoint characters sound the same, it’s their own voice, not author voice.

    Author voice is more about what carries through in most of their books from their building blocks of plot, the type of characters, themes, style, and over-all views of the world. It’s not learned, and most authors don’t even know what their voice is, but the reader who follows the author usually does because it’s what they expect when they pick up any of the author’s books.

  13. Great advice, Terry. Thank you.

    I can think of two author/character voices immediately. One is James Lee Burke’s troubled, bent-but-not-broken David Robicheaux. Actually, make that two for Burke. Clete Purcell, Dave’s loyal friend, has a voice that is every bit as distinctive.

    The other, on the other end of the spectrum, is that of Tim Dorsey’s Serge A. Storms, the madcap serial killer who traverses Florida’s highways and low-ways. I can hear his knowing, wise-ass twang in my head with every word of Dorsey’s that I read.

  14. Great post, Terry. Definitely one of the tougher nuances of writing.
    I understand where you’re going with this particular line, “Rule of thumb—if it sounds “writerly”, cut it.”
    But what if your voice IS writerly?
    I laugh, but it’s a genuine issue for me.
    I write a cynical, extremely pragmatic soldier in First Person POV, yet I naturally have a very literary “voice.” My character should not be waxing poetic in the narrative!
    I can always tell when I’ve written on autopilot because I have to go back and edit as if I’m using a bush-hog on an overgrown pasture.
    I love all of my soldier characters (city temple guards in a dark fantasy series), but sometimes I feel as if there are two very distinct writers fighting for dominance for my WIP!

  15. I guess for you, you have to channel your characters before you start writing and make sure you’re writing from their POV and not yours.

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