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May 1, 2020

Finding Your Voice

By Sarah Appleyard.

Voice. We all have one. Even our characters. It is oftentimes one of the defining reasons a reader returns to buy every book an author publishes. Also, one of the key pieces of a manuscript that editors, agents, and publishers use to determine if a book is worthy, in the first place, of publishing.

But, what is voice?
Voice is the fist around your heart when your favorite character is walking into certain danger. Voice is what makes you cringe when the hero/heroine royally embarrasses themself in front of their crush. Voice is the melodic flow of words that enters your brain, carves out room for itself, and plants a story in your head you cannot put down or forget.
Voice is like a symphony. Different instruments and elements harmonizing together to create a sound that is distinctly beautiful, haunting, luscious, energizing - unique - like you. So, as writers, what elements do we need to create a voice that becomes an addiction to our readers?
“No writing comes alive unless the writer sees across his desk a reader, and searches constantly for the word or phrase which will carry the image he wants the reader to see, and arouse the emotion he wants him to feel. Without consciousness of a live reader, what a man writes will die on his page.” - Barbara W. Tuchman
Voice is as much about the emotion of the character as it is that of the reader and the writer. Why? Because the emotions you as a writer feel while writing will translate into the text, driving the story. Those emotions are what drive the writers to choose the story, the characters, the traumas and tribulations the characters face throughout the novel.
Kill your darlings. It’s something every writer has been told at some point in their career. Not bad advice, if it’s understood that no one actually means to kill off your main character. Like the death tarot, it implies something different. The tarot implies change, whereas the idea of killing your characters comes from the need to put them through trials (changes) that cause them to experience a variety of emotions as they journey through to the other side of these trials.
Emotion is the first consideration of voice due to the fact that different readers pick up different genres with a preconceived notion of the emotions they are going to feel. If readers pick up a romance, they want to be swept away by feelings of love, while the horror readers want to experience fear and thrills while they read. Your voice provides an emotional journey for the readers, it’s why, if they like your voice, they’ll continue to buy your books. Your story isn’t just the plot points, it's the emotions the characters, and in turn, the reader, feel as the story progresses.
“A character is what he does, yes - but even more, a character is what he means to do.” - Orson Scott Card
Though you may put pen to page and find yourself writing about a sword-wielding hero fighting the good fight against the forces of evil, that hero will walk, talk, and think with your voice. The voice you choose to give them. And though you may let their journey and who they are flow naturally in the first draft, it is through later drafts that you must hone your characters to truly bring out their - your - voice.
The characters you create will likely speak with your voice, represent your world view and the core of your story, all of which will be present underneath all of the external story elements. Getting to know your characters and layering in their emotions, beliefs, personalities is one element of creating a rounded and memorable voice.
Try asking your characters questions, taking them through an interview where you write the answers with their voice. Is it distinct? Do their answers align with their worldview and beliefs? Or does it sound more like you, the author, is speaking instead of your character?
To implement voice well, you must put yourself into the shoes of your character so that your views and their views meld, ultimately becoming the views of the reader as they too step into the shoes of your character, and in turn your shoes.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” - Stephen King
Another of the many elements of voice is description: what we choose to describe and how we choose to describe those things when writing our stories. Description affects how the character, and so the reader, sees the world unfolding around them. Not enough and the reader will be left confused, questioning why they are there, why they are reading if the writer won’t allow them into their world. Too much and the reader drowns.
Each writer will have their own amount of description, but it is finding the balance that is important. Beyond how much, it is also what you choose to focus on. In mysteries, the descriptions you choose to highlight are immensely important, as are the ones you choose to glance over, giving the reader false clues while also keeping the true clues in sight yet semi-forgotten allowing for a satisfying solution.
In my manuscript, I highlight a golden sword before it’s used. At the time, to the reader, it may seem odd to spend any time on this sword until it shows up to save the hero and heroines lives a hundred pages later. Description can be used not just to set a scene or amp emotion but to foreshadow elements needed in scenes to come.
All of this plays into the voice of the story and the voice of your character, through who these descriptions will be filtered.
            More than just emotion, characterization, and description go into building a voice that will draw readers back countless times. Conflict, pacing, and story can also play a part in helping to create a voice that resonates with your readers. Development of voice starts from day one and though a first draft is solely meant to put the story on the page, it is important that in revision these aspects are given the attention that will let them sing.


About the Author: Sarah Appleyard
I am a graduate of High Point University with a B.A. in Creative Writing as well as a graduate of Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. When I'm not critiquing or writing about post-apocalyptic faerie lands, I can be found binging Brooklyn Nine-Nine with my boyfriend and our two dogs.