One of the most difficult, but essential, questions for beginning writers is this: how do I find my voice? Giving guidance about finding your voice as a fiction writer is a challenge. It reminds me of the oft-quoted statement by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote that he couldn’t define hard-core obscenity, “but I know it when I see it.” Voice in fiction writing is difficult to define, but readers know it when they see it.
Finding your voice has nothing to do with developing memorable characters. Voice is not the point of view of the main character. Your voice is your unique writing style. It’s what sets you apart from every other writer. Your voice is the way you write. It reflects your personality, your attitudes, and your beliefs.
Let’s take two of my favorite authors—Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard. You would never confuse their writing styles. Anne Tyler’s subject matter is families. Her characters often find themselves trapped in unsatisfying marriages they cannot leave because their families depend on them. Elmore Leonard’s crime/mystery novels are filled with good guys and bad guys and those in-between—often cops and private investigators on one side and criminals and deadbeats on the other. Anne Tyler gets deep into the psychology of her characters. An Elmore Leonard novel is a guilty pleasure. His novels are laugh-out-loud funny, but there are so many nuggets of human insight among the ‘yucks.’ The dialogue is so natural you feel like you know these people. One of the distinguishing characteristics of his work is that each character is at the same time both honorable and little shady. In some cases, the criminals display more honor than the good guys. You know when you’re reading Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard by their voices.
So what is your voice and how do you find it? Your voice must be authentic. It must be you. Don’t try to sound like somebody else. You will sound phony. Your voice must be consistent and it must be your own.
How do you develop your voice? Practice, practice, practice. When I started writing fiction in the late 1990s, I tried different styles until I discovered my own voice. How did I know when I found my voice? It just felt right. It felt natural. Over time, I became comfortable with a certain narrative technique: somewhat casual, down-to-earth, using simple words and images. My voice is heavy on dialogue. I enjoy writing dialogue. I listen to the way people talk. When I develop my characters, I focus a lot of attention on the way they talk, not just what they are saying.
Your voice does not limit the kinds of characters you can create. My first novel used a first-person narrative. The protagonist’s upbringing was similar to mine, so it was easy for me to find his voice. My second novel used a third-person, limited omniscient narrative. The main character is a son of privilege and an heir to a business and political dynasty. I could not draw on any personal experience here. The character was drawn through my understanding of and perspective on this young man’s life and experiences. Developing this understanding of a young privileged man required a fair amount of research. I chose very different language for this character than the protagonist of my first novel. Harold Goddard, the main character in my second novel, refers to his parents throughout “Father” and “Mother.” John Sykowski, the protagonist of my first novel, calls his parents “Dad” and “Mom.”
So how will you know when you’ve found your voice? Picture yourself in a shoe store. You try on a pair of classy shoes. You look stylish in the shoes, but they’re a size too small for you. You may look good, but you’re not comfortable. So you try on a pair of plain shoes and they fit perfectly. You walk around the shoe store and you don’t even know you have them on. It’s like that with voice in fiction. You don’t know you’re writing in a particular voice. You’re just writing in a natural, comfortable style.
Once you’ve found a voice that works for you, hone it. Develop it. Sharpen your voice. Read your writing with an eye toward strengthening your voice.
How do you know when you’ve found your voice? What challenges did you face along the way?