An author’s voice is generally considered to be important; sometimes it’s even said to be the most important element of writing. But what is voice, exactly? Is it really that important? Does it change from book to book, and how is it different from character voice? We answer all those questions and more, plus Wes does some excellent dramatic reading.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-
Wes: Wes and-
Chris: [in a spooky voice] -and this time we’re going to have funny voices. That’s what voice is right?
Oren: [in an old timey voice] Well, sir, I do like funny voices! They are very fun.
Chris: [normally] I mean that’s important to writing right? Having really funny voices? Very important is what we mean?
Wes: [laughing] Oh my god. I did not think you’re going to do that.
Oren: Look, the opening bit is next level.
Wes: Yeah, it’s great. I love it.
Chris: The opening bit is always something I think up immediately before I push the record button.
So yes, this time we’re going to be talking about voice in narration, not actual, but metaphorical voice. This is a funny thing to have to say, but I just want to start by saying voice is not everything.
Oren: [sarcastically] Hmm. I don’t know Chris. Have you considered maybe that voice is everything but also that it cannot be defined?
Wes: Also good.
Chris: Unfortunately, it has this connotation in the writing industry where it’s venerated and treated like it’s all-important. And I think some of the reason for that is because there’s been a lot more emphasis on wordcraft in traditional writing spaces than on storytelling, because I think wordcraft, as a skill, is a little harder. I mean harder as in hard versus soft skills, and storytelling is a little softer. And particularly – Wes you can tell me what you think – in the literary genre, which tends to have more influence over academia and culture, and the culture around writing in general. It especially emphasizes wordcraft, and voice is a big part of that. Would you agree?
Wes: Yeah, because in that realm voice is often associated with other literary terms, literary elements, which comprise things like metaphor, simile, tone. Whereas tone is the literary device that is generally localized, voice is trying to then take a step back and look at a work as a whole or an author’s collection of works. If you’re saying ‘analyze the voice of this character.’ If you’ve got that essay prompt or something like that, then you would look at how the character speaks throughout the text and then try to see if you could describe the voice based on evidence and usually that gets to addiction level analysis. It has to be academic because it’s often tasked in that way to students in English classes and things like that.
Chris: I would say that while a strong notable voice can be enough to bring a book up into notable status or- I would say Space Opera (Catherynne M. Valente) is a good example of this. It’s been nominated for a Hugo and voice is what it has, right? So it is enough to make a book a best-seller, but there are plenty of best-selling works that don’t have a voice that I think anyone is particularly attached to. They have other strengths.
Oren: Certainly, there are some books that I would say have a distinctive voice. And others that I would not be able to pick out. If you gave me a random passage from a Discworld book, I could probably tell you that that was Terry Pratchett. I wouldn’t be able to do that with Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin). But I think Game of Thrones is also well written. It’s just not as immediately recognizable.
Wes: That’s a good point Chris. Everything has voice, you can’t get rid of that fact, but maybe that’s not the point. It can shine for many other reasons. I think unfortunately it’s heralded as a hallmark of a great [work], and used pejoratively against other types of texts when if that’s not the focus of the work then you should not bring that against it. That’s not fair.
Chris: I just try to keep in mind that most works that we would consider great or best-selling are not perfect. Usually the writer is exceptional in one or two aspects of the craft and just mediocre and others and that includes voice. All of your writers have their strengths and weaknesses and because there’s not a lot of direction on developing a voice, it definitely can be very unfair to insist that everybody needs one. Every strong voice that you could instantly recognize that’s really entertaining or whatever other ideals we hold for voice.
Oren: Look, I’m just trying to make my dialogue not sound super awkward okay? If I can add if I can get that far, I’ll worry about voice 15 years from now, who knows.
Wes: But I think that if you can get your dialogue to a point where it’s not awkward and nobody pauses in the dialogue to say, ‘what? no one talks like that.’ If people aren’t questioning the dialogue choices and it’s just reading clear through, you’ve succeeded on character voice, right? You’ve made it sound natural. Some characters, just like people in real life, have more distinct voices. We all have those friends and acquaintances that kind of talk in their own way and then the rest of us, there certainly are different verbal tics and things like that that manifest but not for everyone right? It’s definitely different.
Oren: I actually am very fascinated by the difference between character voice and authorial voice or narrator voice, however you want to say it. Because the character ideally is distinctive in some way, especially if it’s not a blank protagonist, so the character probably sounds different than the base narration in most cases. But even so, the base narration is always going to affect how the character sounds a little bit, unless you’re magic and you can just turn off the way that your writing normally sounds to sound completely different in another characters voice. If you can do that, then I guess hats off to you. Sounds like a strong ability.
Wes: They have to be connected. When people talk about this, author or authorial voice and character voice are the main ones, but I really think you need to separate out for a third and have narrative voice in there. There should be narrative voice, character voice, and author voice. This is only my opinion; I’m pretty sure no one else has written this down, but if you have characters, they probably have certain things in their dialogue that mark them and that’s enough. They are marked. If you have a narrator that is not a character, that narrative voice probably has certain types of qualities and characteristics and maybe we can describe that. If your narrator is kind of commenting on events rather than just reporting them, then you would describe that as a subjective narrative voice or an editorializing narrative voice. But then an author’s voice – Oren mentioned Discworld things. Terry Pratchett has a strong authorial voice. You kind of know the way he tells a story. And certainly other writers do that and I would associate that more with establishing like – I hate the word – ‘brand’ for yourself. But it’s kind of that, in a way. You know exactly when you’re reading a Stephen King book because he has a very particular way of conveying things full of references to music and TV and anecdotes and tangents and things like that even in his fantasy, but that’s just them. I’m more interested in character and narrative voice, how those manifest. I like it when they’re kind of different from book to book even if it’s the same writer.
Chris: I have a metaphor I really like, and I got it from some article on the internet and I tried really hard to find the article but I can’t, so it’s not my idea. If anybody knows what it is, they can let me know in the comments. The idea is that when you have artists they’re often separated into two different categories. We have the ‘Picasso’s and the ‘Monet’s. The difference is that Monet has a distinctive style to his paintings that you can always recognize – his brand, you might say – and that’s often really admired and also people love Monet paintings. There’s a certain amount of attachment to being like ‘Oh, it’s another Monet,’ and that instant recognition. A lot of creatives in various fields really like that and want that distinctive style that’s all of their own that people attribute to them. But then there’s also the ‘Picasso’s that have more of the idea of wanting to be flexible and adaptable and master a whole variety of styles, and that’s also a valid way to go.
I personally think that if you want your own style that you stamp on every book, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I do think that every book – not intentionally – has certain aspects of it [personal voice] that, regardless of what tone you are aiming for or mood or personality, has certain markers. That would be more of a sign of lack of skill than of mastery. We all have limitations, you know, our brains can come up with some things and not others or we all have strategic choices where we think some things are better.
I’m going to continue using semicolons. Nobody’s taking the semicolon away from me. But at the same time, showing that you can adapt your style is a way of showing mastery over the medium. But both are valid options and people can go in either way. I do think when people are talking about authorial voice, a lot of times what they’re talking about- Sometimes it’s somebody that has an intentional style, but it also sometimes feels like they’re attached to this writer, and they are glorifying the fact that they can always tell it’s that writer when maybe that’s not actually a sign of skill on the writer’s part.
Wes: Right. It’s just distinct, that’s it. And distinct doesn’t have to be a marker of great.
Oren: Terry Pratchett, for example I was gonna bring it back to Terry Pratchett. He has, I would say, a very distinct voice. I’ve never seen him try to do a serious dark gritty thriller book and I’m kind of glad because I really don’t think his voice would have meshed with that. All of the books that he does have a certain playfulness and a certain subversiveness to them. Obviously Discworld is all about that and then you have Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimen), which is a subversive take on the apocalypse. And then you have The Long War (Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett) which is a big sprawling sci-fi story. But it still has that very distinct – at least the first book does, the one that Pratchett was really involved in – has that very distinct sort of subversive style of his and it’s that way on purpose. It’s sort of meant to show how absurd various human ideas are in the face of this incredible discovery that we’ve made and that works really well. I don’t think it would work very well if this was a hard-nosed detective story where he has to wade through like five corpses just to get his morning coffee.
[Wes and Chris laugh]
Oren: That probably would not have been a great match for Pratchett. But I mean, maybe Pratchett could have proved me wrong if he decided to write a hard-nosed detective story where he has to wade through five corpses to get coffee. Who knows.
Chris: I’m going back to the distinction between authorial voice and character voice and Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera. She has a voice that can be very entertaining. Again, I do think that there is a point at which if the voice gets too strong it starts to wear out the reader or the listener. But it’s clear that this is definitely what a lot of people probably love. I’m sure there are some people who just love listening to her. That’s their favorite thing about this book. There are funny and clever things that she says all the time. But it also becomes clear that either she can’t really turn it off or she just doesn’t want to turn it off, so we have some characters that just sound like her, like the omniscient narrator, when they probably shouldn’t.
Oren: Yeah that can be a real problem. That happened also in a book called A Stitch in Time which is a Star Trek novel about Garak written by Andrew J. Robinson, the actor who played Garak. And it’s the only Star Trek novel that I’ve read where the characters sound like themselves, where any of them do. That’s one of the reasons I can’t read tie-in fiction is that the characters just sound wrong. I don’t have the actor there interpreting the dialogue for me. But in this book Garak sounds like Garak. It’s amazing and it was such a fantastic experience, and then the original characters that he has, they all sound fine. Right? They’re interpreted through Garak, but I don’t have any previous version of what these characters sound like, so that’s fine. There’s this Cardassian woman that he knows. Yeah, she sounds a little like Garak but different enough. She’s a different kind of Garak and I’m okay with that.
But then when we get to the dialogue for the other canon DS9 characters – who are fortunately not in the book that often – they sound wrong. They don’t sound like themselves. They sound like Garak imitating them. Especially Kira, his version of Kira is just way too long-winded and uses way too many words when Kira has always been like direct and to the point. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it would sound like if Garak was imitating Kira.’
It’s kind of an interesting experience, and if it had been a more unreliable narrator, I might have even been able to get into it. But as it was, those were the sections of the book that I was hoping they would be over soon. Fortunately, they were, because those characters will only show up in like a handful of flashbacks and then we can get back to the main story which is just Garak talking to a bunch of original characters who all sound a little like Garak, but it’s fine.
[Chris and Wes laugh]
Chris: Let’s talk about some other things. I know Wes touched on this, but what is voice made of?
Wes: Oh, yeah.
Chris: I personally think of it as style but attributed to a person, just because I don’t know what we consider style to encompass. But I feel like style encompasses just about everything that voice encompasses. So inherently, they’re kind of the same thing.
Wes: Yeah, I approached this more from just memories of English class and things like that. If you were tasked with describing a character’s voice or the narrative voice in the text; what does that mean? What would you look for? This is probably certainly more rigorous than anyone is going to do. We prefer to just talk about, you know, ‘that voice is just is just great; they have such a strong voice.’ And you’re saying nothing. You might as well say ‘it’s interesting’ because it’s not- To me that doesn’t quite convey it accurately. I’m like, ‘Okay they have a strong voice. Fine.’
Oren: Hmm. That’s interesting Wes.
Wes: Yes, right. And so when I was kind of digging up notes on this is type and then I kind of just said style, and those are largely arbitrary. But when you think of type would be like if you could kind of describe the mood of this voice in a word, well, how would you do it? And so you could say ‘well, this voice is intellectual.’ And that might give somebody an idea of what kind of narrative voice they’re going to encounter. Or it’s pedantic right? The narrator is pedantic right? It’s constantly trying to show you how smart it is. Or maybe the narrator is loose and casual or conversational. That at least is better than strong because it’s cluing me into what kind of reading experience I might have. But those are again broad generalizations. When I was talking about a style of voice, I was getting a lot more technical in what that might include. If you’re looking at analyzing voice, these are a few things you might consider: how long are the sentences? What type of sentence are they? Are they simple sentences, are they compound sentences, are they complex sentences, or are they sentence fragments? In the works that use lots of sentence fragments, you could describe that voices as ‘clipped’ or I saw ‘staccato’ is something like that. We’ve read those passages where it’s truncated. That sentence length can also relate to paragraph length or how many paragraph breaks you get. The narrative voice could be exhausting if there are just super long paragraphs, because you’re trying to convey something and not giving your reader a break.
Chris, you mentioned never giving up the semicolon, and punctuation use, I think, has an effect on voice. If you’re describing a voice as being a particular way then how they use punctuation could affect that. Commas are used sometimes in fiction for breath, to indicate pause, rather than for any technical reason to the bane of most copy editors
Chris: I was going to say, ‘that one definitely starts a fight.’
Oren: That’s how I was taught to use commas. I’m very sorry.
Wes: I mean it’s not wrong for fiction. That’s fine.
Chris: Well, some people would not agree with it.
Wes: Well, I’m more forgiving but I get if you weren’t trained in how punctuation works and then you go to fiction. It’s like, ‘Oh, right. This is different.’
Chris: Yeah. Well, I think in copy editing there’s always sort of a struggle for exactly how prescriptive you should be-
Wes: Yeah, there is.
Chris: -and how you should just let it go. For me, personally I think that rules for pauses and punctuation should be different in dialogue because it needs to be more naturalistic and reflect the way that people talk, but I usually try to stick to actual punctuation rules in the narrative if possible. I know some writers would just like, ‘No, we’re doing it differently. This is how I want the narrative to be.’ Some punctuation rules really are for clarity and you do lose something if you violate them, so it’s always a struggle. It’s always a balance there.
Wes: It really is, but a good copy editor would note those moments and how the writer wanted them to be used and then ensure that they’re used consistently, because a marker of so-called strong voice is definitely consistency.
Wes: And good writers use good editors to help achieve that. I think that that’s one of the best things you can do in your writing is just consistently use the things that you’re using. You give readers an easier time of enjoying your work.
Chris: Going back to the mastery aspect of being intentional about what you’re putting in. For a lot of writers there is a learning curve in choosing what style and sticking to it. A lot of people have trouble with- They read somebody else’s work, that person had a specific style, and they come back and accidentally put that style in what they’re writing. Then what they’re writing has a different style in the beginning and different style in the end. I’ve had that problem and had to go back and take snippets from your beginning and snippets from your end and put them side-by-side, and look at what are the structure of the sentences I’m using? Is one having more of an elaborate formal fantasy, medieval fantasy style while the other one feels more contemporary and casual? Those kinds of things and compare them to see if you’re changing and try to- It’s always a matter of over time having a more sensitive eye to what you’re doing and noticing those tiny things more.
Oren: My solution is just to never improve as a writer. That way like my voice is always exactly the same at the end of a story as it was at the beginning.
Wes: Hey, I mean if it works do it.
Oren: It does not work. I do not recommend it.
Chris: And so often it’s not a matter of what style is better. They’re just different and you can artistically, creatively choose what style you want to go with what story.
Oren: I did find it very enjoyable to read the differences between Pratchett’s voice at the beginning of Discworld versus towards the end because at the beginning of Discworld – and this just goes along with how originally Discworld was basically a parody. That’s all it was. It was just a parody of fantasy, and so his voice in the original Discworld is very acerbic, very judgmental, and kind of mean. And you can tell that it’s cleverness there, but it’s definitely poking fun and mocking things. Then as you get further into Discworld and it actually becomes its own thing and it becomes a story that he cares about for its own sake beyond just making fun of fantasy tropes his voice becomes much more- I don’t think teacherly is a good adverb or adjective but that’s what I’m going to use. It sounds like a teacher. He’s still humorous. He still has jokes and stuff, but he sounds more like he’s trying to educate you as you go further, as you go later into his stories, as Discworld becomes something that was worthwhile for its own merits. I found that a very interesting experience.
Chris: That’s cool.
Wes: That’s a great observation.
Oren: Not a lot of writers have the body of work necessary over a long enough period of time to really watch that transformation the way Pratchett does. Not the only one obviously, there are some others who do. But he certainly is the only one that I’ve read enough of their books to be able to make those comparisons.
Wes: A few more things that I had on my list here that you might consider:
Let’s see. This varies from work to work but voice can be affected by the balance between how much dialogue there is in a work as opposed to how much exposition, so that can definitely affect the type of voice that you’ve conveyed. I mean, read one of many of the wonderful posts that Chris is written on point of view because that obviously has a massive impact on voice. First, second, third, close, distant, limited, objective, subjective, epistolary, breaking the fourth wall, all of those things. The second somebody addresses you the reader, that’s going to convey an extremely different type of voice than if you didn’t.
And then really the last one that I just noted was that we talked about word choice, the diction stuff, and I remember reading when I was in high school that Hemingway had basically slammed Falkner saying that he [Hemingway] could use $20 words too but he doesn’t want to burden people with it. And that largely comes down to the fact that so much of the English vocabulary includes latin-based words, and those unfortunately have been adopted by academia as having a refined sense to them, a higher style, when Anglo-Saxon rooted words are shorter and allegedly cruder. Unfortunately that is a thing. Readers pick up on that. If you’re using a bunch of long Latin based nouns then that might convey a certain type of tone that maybe you weren’t intending. It’s just understanding that words have connotations, right? If it’s a French word that we co-opted that’s going to have different connotations from an English word that means the same thing. That’s again something that you might not be thinking about while writing because you would never get anything done, but a good editor can help with that.
Oren: Well, I mean French words are just more classy than English words, and we know that because the French Normans conquered England and if they had less classy words, they wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Chris: Yes that’s definitely the flow of causation. It’s from the words to the conquering and not vice versa.
Oren: Right. That’s why a dirty peasant might eat cow but a noble eats beef.
Wes: That’s right.
Wes: I have two opening excerpts that I thought were good examples of character narrative voice. If you guys don’t mind.
Chris: Yeah, go ahead.
Wes: In both of these stories the narrator is also a character and I thought they were good examples of – I don’t know – I’ll just read them and that way we can talk about them. We can do it one at a time. This first one is the opening three or four lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ which it’s hard to get educated and not read this one because it’s been around for such a long time. I thought it was a good example of voice in action. I’ll try to not intone too much while reading. I’ll just try to read it straight through.
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in Hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Oren: Certainly not going to forget that in a hurry.
Wes: No, and I’m like, ‘okay unreliable.’ Comes right to mind right? Unreliable voice. This person, you can’t see it since I read it but this passage is full of em dashes, question marks, short sentences. They’re clipped thoughts. It definitely doesn’t convey a rational, calm collected attitude. It definitely primes you for what’s going to come.
Chris: What strikes me about that is the extent to which the shorter sentences and the repetition emphasize the feeling of frantic nervousness.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: That really brings across that mood more, which is clearly the intent.
Wes: This next one is the opening paragraph to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am 18 years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance and Richard Plantagenet and Amanita Phalloides the death cap mushrooms. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Wes: Also it’s a brilliant book and everyone should read it. I like this one as a good example of voice for its simplicity. It’s great. The Poe one is captivating, but it’s doing so much and this is an example of, I want to keep reading and I’ve read it already.
Chris: As I was saying about sometimes voices are wearing people out. An example of a kind of voice that would easily where people: let’s say you just wrote your entire novel in caveman speak. It would be hilarious for several paragraphs, right? But then what would happen if it got too long as the novelty of the voice will wear off and then it would just become very tiresome. So having the simple voice that’s more restful allows that to not happen so much. The one thing that strikes me about that one is honestly just the inclusion of detail, just talking about things like werewolves. Also mentioning the rest of the family being dead as the last sentence like that is a really interesting choice.
Wes: Yeah, it’s such a good book.
Chris: So I think it’s more the content of what is being included in the details there than the style of the sentence length and that itself strikes me in that one.
Oren: Alright, well, we are definitely out of time as well after those two excellent snippets, so we’re going to call this episode to a close. But before we go, I want to thank two of our patrons: first is Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. If anything we said piqued your interest, feel free to leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.[Closing Music]
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