Voice is one of those intangible aspects of writing that emerging authors often have difficulty grappling with. They've heard that 'proper writers' have 'voice' but what exactly is it, and how will they know when they have truly found it? Tricky questions! And, of course, there are no straightforward answers.
The concept of voice is problematic because we're talking, in fact, about two things:
1. Authorial voice
2. Narrative voice
Inevitably, a writer's experience, opinions, biases, beliefs and values shape their fiction, from the stories they choose to tell, to the kinds of heroes and villains they create, and their writing style (grammar/syntax, vocab, etc.).
On either a conscious or subconscious level, all writers are compelled to share their worldview with an audience, and often a writer will return to genres, themes, and settings to create a distinctive oeuvre. Their body of work often speaks volumes about who the author is and their worldview. Of course, the authorial voice is not fixed, and it may change as the author develops and ages.
A weak authorial voice will undermine the writer's ability to create strong narrative voices, so it isn't to be ignored! One way to ensure you're maximising your authorial voice is to write only what you are passionate about and feel compelled to write, whether serious or lighthearted. Simply stated, if you are excited about writing your story, your voice will ring out. However, sometimes it might be necessary to focus on personal development if you're to become a better writer: new interests, philosophies, knowledge, and life experiences will invigorate your creative writing.
Narrative voice, on the other hand, is specific to a single book and hinges on the strength of the primary character and/or narrator. This voice comes from the character's background, desires, flaws, social status and so on (which, of course, may be markedly different from the author's).
It is this voice that will attract the reader, agent or publisher, and it is this that will elevate a run-of-the-mill tale into something memorable. Narrative voice is often talked about in terms of POV (first person, third person, etc.), but this is merely technique. I think of a powerful narrative voice as something complex, both morally and emotionally, that thereby gives depth to a story.
As an editor, I can only concern myself with the narrative voice. In particular, I am looking at the consistency of tone and characterisation, ensuring the voice is cohesive, even as the character undergoes change. I am also looking for individuality, i.e., a voice that not only makes them different from other key characters in the book but also different from anything I might have read before ... so watch out for character cliché! (See the June blog for more on compelling characters).
If you feel your book's narrative voice is weak, it might be because you do not fully understand what makes your primary character tick. Revisit him/her/them and figure out their complete backstory, even if it is not pertinent to the plot of the book. As an exercise, write a detailed bio for your protagonist, giving all the circumstances of their upbringing, including key events in their formative years that shaped their worldview. You're not trying to articulate who they are, but WHY they are who they are ... a subtle but important difference. These 'whys' drive everything your character does and says (or doesn't do or say), and ultimately this is their 'voice'.
Let me know in the comments below which authors and characters have voices that have made an impact on you!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith