“Voice,” in literary terms, refers to the attitude or personality of the author, narrator, or point-of-view character in a piece of writing. Voice shows up in both fiction and nonfiction. It can be comical, cozy, sophisticated, simple, intellectual, down-to-earth, edgy, monotonous, etc. But what if I lost my voice?
I already know what that’s like in physical terms. After a second bout of Covid-19 in January, I lost my voice. My vocal cords have evidently been damaged. Since after almost six months, I haven’t yet recuperated my normal speaking voice, I must conclude that it’s at least semi-permanent. I can’t sing. I can barely teach. And it’s hard to read aloud. I think I can pretty well rule out performing my own audio books in the future.
No, I haven’t seen a doctor about it yet. I figured I’d give it time for these aftereffects to heal, but I probably should look up an otorhinolaryngologist and/or phono-audiologist sometime soon. What can I do about it? Is there anything I can do about my voice?
“Hold your pen and spare your voice.” –Dorothy Parker
Editors, literary agents, and writing coaches always say they’re looking for a unique voice. Well, guess what? I now have a super unique voice. I was always more of a quiet alto than an opera soprano, but at present I’m a 5’2” woman who sounds like a big bass drum. Maybe I could read for those deep, majestic documentaries.
The Voice of Emotion
On a more serious note, it’s amazing how much voice has to do with emotion. I can’t express emotion quite the same way anymore. My voice ranges from hoarse (“Are you sick?”) to squeaky (embarrassingly childlike). It’s hard to sound excited because my voice is now so soft and low unless I push it. I can’t scream or yell. And I really sound ugly when I cry.
Editor Cheryl B. Klein suggests in The Magic Words that among the most important responsibilities of a narrative voice is to give a connective flow and convey an emotional tone to the story. It goes without saying that point of view, person (first, third, etc.), and tense (usually past or present) are fundamental components of voice.
Some other key elements of voice are:
- 1. Diction – This is word choice. The language of a specific character depends on many factors, such as his or her background, historical and cultural context, age, and education. In a story, this always needs to be consistent with other details about that character. Diction is distinctive to who he/she is and the vocabulary they’ve been exposed to. What I write must reflect the most natural and accurate word choices for the character…or she loses her voice!
- 2. Syntax – means the sentence structure—its patterns, repetitions, and variety in length. This factor is also largely contingent on maturity, culture, and education. Some people are straightforward and plainspoken. Others of us wind around, complicated and convoluted. Syntax can be a powerful tool in dialogue. Both hearers and readers respond emotionally and can draw conclusions from a character’s language alone.
Voice as Character
- 3. Tone – Simply put, tone is the author/narrator/character’s attitude toward her audience or topic. Just as my tone of voice indicates my mood, the tone of a story establishes its emotional atmosphere. Sometimes, a book’s tone will give clues to the narrator’s purpose in writing or telling her story.
- 4. Observation – In other words, what do the point-of-view characters notice? What they mention reveals what’s important to them.
“Voice is the je ne sais quoi of spirited writing. It separates brochures and brilliance, memo and memoir, a ship’s log and The Old Man and the Sea. The best writers stamp prose with their own distinctive personality; their timbre and tone are as recognizable as their voices on the phone.” –Constance Hale
- 5. Latitude – This is the whole range of what a narrator or character talks about: references, subjects, symbols, metaphors. Voice gives away what objects or ideas form part of our physical and mental landscape. When I as a narrator encounter something new, I must express that within the limits of my character’s context. What’s on my character’s mind?
- 6. Details – are the small, physical specifics that make a story believable and “real.” Think of the five senses here. They make a story setting spring to life in a reader’s mind. The best details of a voice capture the emotional heart of a character or scene.
When a story seems real, voice moves from just a style or persona into an experience for the reader. This kind of narrative voice reverberates with authenticity, even authority.
Losing My Voice
Losing my voice means I’m no longer able to express myself as an original creation in the image of God. A character without a strong voice loses her personality, the opportunity to share who she is and what she’s about. Naturally the author can’t help but get involved here somewhat. We work together hand-in-glove, mouth-to-mike.
Author and writing teacher James Scott Bell defines voice as the combination of “character background and language filtered through the author’s heart and rendered with craft on the page” (Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing). To him, the character/writer relationship is symbiotic—they need each other to exist.
“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.” –Sylvia Plath
Most fiction isn’t autobiographical (not really, sometimes not even remotely!) Yet I think the stories we writers invent almost always reflect, if not our opinions, then certainly our heartbeat. What interests me, concerns me, bugs and bothers me, inspires and impassions me—has to spill out. What touches and wrings my heart may speak out through a character’s broken heart.
Otherwise, why write? Why use voice or pen to express it?
Who am I here? I ask myself as I write. Whose voice is mine? Or into whose voice do I channel my own heart in this work? Certainly David the psalmist doesn’t sound like Jeremiah the weeping prophet. Brave Ruth doesn’t resemble demure Esther.
Listen to the boom of John the Baptist: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord!’” (Mt. 3:3, NASB).
Compare that voice with the revelry at a wedding reception: “…the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride…” (Jer. 7:34, NASB)
Using a Voice Journal
While we shouldn’t write with a preaching program in mind, we do share our hearts through our characters. That’s why we possess a voice. I might as well lose my voice if I’m not going to use it.
It works both ways, though. My voice may emerge through a character, true. But other times—to my surprise—she may have something to say through me. Or to me.
Sometimes I have to sit in silence and listen to what the quiet Holy Spirit might want to whisper to my spirit. “The Lord was not in the wind… the Lord was not in the earthquake… the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a still small voice” (I Kings 19:11-12, NKJV).
And sometimes I just need to participate in the loud parties and celebrate with the saints of the ages. “The voice of a great multitude…like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns” (Rev. 19:6, NASB).
My first characters—Melissa, Linda, Cristina, Coni—came to me with little effort. They arrived talking nonstop in their own voices. They had an attitude and an agenda and didn’t ask me to outline their lives.
“Be a voice, not an echo.” –Anonymous
Not so with my next two main characters, Valeria and her mom Angélica. Although I knew them both quite well as secondary characters in the other novels, I had to prompt them to tell me more about themselves.
For that, I use what is called a voice journal.
It’s more or less a creative diary in which I encourage my characters to tell me anything they want. Once in a while, they confess some shockers. I mean, who knew that happy-go-lucky Valeria felt inadequate or that compliant Angie resented her mother?
So how would I deal with those problems? I really had to get to know them better. I had to learn to recognize their voices. Their individual personalities had to start to bleed onto the page in a distinctive way.
“The first thing a writer should be is—excited.” –Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
As the narrator’s voice, I must identify with the character so closely that I feel and think what she does. This is truly the writer’s job: Get into the character’s head and heart, and stay there for the duration.
But I don’t worry about it. I just enjoy it. “The best writing comes when you put down words with a certain abandon,” James Scott Bell says. “In fact, you need to write with joy.” When I find my voice, my niche, my pace… then my writing will be jazzed and joyful.
Finding My Voice
“All art is where you put the camera,” quotes Cheryl B. Klein. Since the camera in film equals the narrative voice in the art of written fiction, perhaps we could say that all voice is where you put the microphone: What you amplify, what you choose to emphasize, the way you home in to catch the smallest nuance of sound, the subtle thoughts, the hidden hints of emotion. This beautifully balanced blend of melody, harmony, and rhythm creates a voice with electric resonance.
Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) defined the elements necessary to a writer’s style as “lucidity, elegance, individuality.” Don’t we all wish for this kind of rare, stunning, crystal-clear prose.
However, perhaps the best I can hope to do is find the voice that’s true to God, genuine for the character, and right for the story. As a writer, I pray it will grab and pull you along for the ride. Whether I ever sing again on earth, I never want to be known as the writer who lost her voice.
“If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become My spokesman (voice)” –Jeremiah 15:19