Defining Voice: On Personality and Prose

Yesterday, on Twitter, author Toni McGee Causey retweeted a link to a great blog post on “voice” by Allison Brennan. (For those of you who don’t speak Twitter, just run with me. 😉 )

Anyway, Brennan’s post made me think about voice. It’s something I’ve heard talked about a million times, and Brennan does a great job, on the one hand, of illustrating just how common such talk is by bandying about all the “voice” expressions we hear constantly. That an author has a “strong voice,” or a “commercial voice,” or that his or her writing seems “honest.” On the other hand, as Brennan also discusses, no one can definitively define “voice.” What is authorial voice? I can certainly define an individual author’s voice (by using adjectives such as humorous, wry, dark, et cetera), but I only have my own, homespun idea of what the Platonic ideal definition of voice may be.

Brennan gives a few small paragraphs defining voice, and I think it’s absolutely accurate. But in my own definition, and to add to everything Brennan says about tone and the like, is the idea of voice as personality.

Voice is like Dr. Frankenstein’s spark; it imbues a work with life. Voice makes a work breathe and speak, and, in that mysterious process which is reading, voice allows a work to interact with its reader.

Voice is also, like so many of the best things in life, most easily defined by what it is not. We’ve all read, or heard, something in which the voice just isn’t up to snuff. The words cling lifeless to the page, a rote exercise in grammar or penmanship. What do you do, with that piece of paper upon which words are written but in which there is no life? In other words, how do you learn, or teach, voice?

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s possible to do so. I don’t know if voice is something that can be taught. In my occasionally hippie-dippie philosophies, I think that voice might be that mysterious force that an individual either understands, or doesn’t, and that’s why we’re not all authors.

That said, I do think that many people probably have an authorial voice, and I do think there are ways of helping them remove the things that block them from accessing that voice.

What does that mean? Well, I’ve talked often about how, on the surface, it looks a bit like one day I was not an author; the next day I was. How I read a book, and decided I could write like that, and so I did.

This story is important on two levels. The first involves the superficial story and the idea of me connecting with a voice. The second involves the real story behind the superficial story, in which I’ve worked for years to become an author, but I just didn’t know it at the time.

In the first, superficial version of the story, the whole point is this idea of being inspired by another work. I randomly picked up Charlaine Harris’s book Dead as a Doornail. I read that book and I thought, “I can do this.” There were many things I loved about that novel, but the thing that I think really struck a chord for me was Harris’s voice.

I’d always loved urban fantasy, and fantasy in general, but it tends to take itself very seriously. The heroes are truly heroic: they run around brandishing weapons and saving the world. My problem is that as much as I love reading about them, I don’t really believe in heroes and I certainly wouldn’t know how to write one. What Harris showed me was that UF can be about accidental heroes; that it can be funny, and touching, and very, very human. And have hot were-tigers. Mrwor.

In other words, Harris illustrated to me how my voice could fit into a fantasy setting, something I hadn’t really thought possible based on the more canonically fantasy stuff I’d read ages before.

So, the idea of finding a way to integrate your voice into your subject matter is important. But the other part of this story is that, while it’s very exciting (and rather irritating) on a superficial level, it’s not really the truth. For even though I did become a fiction writer in about three months, I became a writer over about 11 years.

I’ve talked a lot about how becoming an academic, and especially doing my Ph.D., helped me to learn about the process of writing and to see writing not so much as inspiration but as hard work and discipline. But my Ph.D. also taught me about voice. I had to become very acquainted with my own authorial voice because, for my thesis, I had to strip it out of my writing. There’s nothing like being forced to remove something to help you identify it. My voice is sarcastic, humorous, and self deprecating, but it also has an edge of sweetness and a frisson of idealism. None of which are appropriate for academic writing. So I had to pare down my writing; take out my voice, so that my ideas were highlighted rather than my personality. And that’s where I made the connection between the idea of personality and the idea of voice.

You’ll read some writers who are their books. Their personalities are so deeply embedded in their writing that reading their book is like having a conversation with them. Other writers pull from some deep, inner part of their being that never sees the light of day, otherwise. But whether or not the work reflects the actual writer, what a good work definitely does reflect is a personality. It has its own life; its own soul.

So we’re back to the idea of teaching . . . how can you teach the transference of souls? And could I be more of a closet hippie?

Fear not, those of you who don’t feel you’ve found your voice. For while I’m not sure voice can be taught to someone who doesn’t, really, have one, I do think that there are many people who have a voice that’s been buried. So many things we grow up with – pressure to conform, pressure to write and think a certain way, pressure to hide ourselves beneath masks – get in the way of our voice. Therefore one thing we can teach is how to strip away those roadblocks to voice. That’s where learning good practice, good discipline, and good editorial skills comes in. It’s also about finding confidence and ceasing to fear revealing oneself. I won’t lie; I’m really scared of what people will make of me through Tempest Rising. It’s a book about a half seal woman living in Maine, but there’s still a lot of me in there. It’s not all me; it’s obviously not memoir, and there are a lot of things I purposely gave Jane that are not me. But there’s also a lot of me, and that’s scary. Revealing yourself, stripping yourself down for the world to see, is frightening. Writing genre-fiction gives you a bit of a buffer, but the personality behind it is still, to a greater or lesser extent, going to be your personality. And that’s frightening.

But that fear can be overcome with practice, with diligence, and with confidence that, as Brennan points out, having a “strong” personality is a good thing, even if its not appreciated by all.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. And I want to know what you think about voice. Have you struggled with it or do you think it comes naturally? Do you think voice can be taught? What’s your definition of voice?

4 thoughts on “Defining Voice: On Personality and Prose”

  1. Great post.

    I don't know if I struggle with voice or not. I have a deep-seated fear that I do not have a voice, but I try not to let that thought bubble to the surface very often.

    I just write and write and write. I do my best to get what's inside me out on the paper. Sometimes I succeed. A lot of the time, I think I probably fail but am too hopeful about my writing to realize it.


  2. I think you're doing the right thing by just writing through your anxiety. We all have our fears and hang ups, and voice is definitely a big one for both of us. And we also all fail a lot of the time… it's why we have editors. 😉 So just keep writing and good luck!

  3. I'm not sure if voice can really be defined clearly for each individual. What I mean is, there are some authors out there that I don't read, even though I know they have a huge fan-base and they write the sorts of books I really enjoy, because the few books of theirs I did read did not resonate with me. In other words, I didn't like their voices. And yet, I know that many others enjoy their voices very much. So to me, the author's voice touches each individual differently, and you either like it or you don't. Can it be taught? I don't see why not. It's the author's personality, like you said, and the author just needs to be trained to bring it out. I think everyone has a voice, but not everyone can filter it naturally into their writing. Just like some people don't need much training to teach or draw or play sports, others are "naturals" at letting their voice shine through their writing. I do struggle with voice, because I tend to let too much of my personality in. Like you I work in academia, and too much Zita-voice is not a good thing. Fortunately, my job doesn't require a lot of my writing attempts, and I have a good co-worker/editor to haul me back when necessary.

  4. Zita: That's such a good point about an author's voice "resonating." There's a para-rom writer whom I LOVE. My friend wanted to read some of the books that influenced me so I gave her one of this writer's books. And she HATED it. She hated the voice, hated the personality behind it, etc. What I thought was hilarious and ironic and really smart; she thought was arrogant, juvenile, and self-congratulatory.

    I was gutted! I was like, "But she's AWESOME." My friend was like, "I HATED it." So yeah, this is an author with a strong voice, the kinda voice that you either love or hate. I loved; my friend hated.

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