We recently received an email from a T4TA visitor asking this seemingly straightforward question: ‘I’ve been getting feedback that my character’s voice isn’t right. What is ‘voice’?
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on this one, but the first question to ask is whether you’re seeking a craft discussion (because there is indeed a lot of nuance that could be discussed), or do you just what to know how to spot sections of your manuscript where the voice may be off?
If it’s the latter, it can be boiled down to this: Imagine you open your email one morning and see waiting for you a new message from your Aunt Jenny. You glance at the few opening words, and just from that snippet you know, without ever having opened the full email itself, this message is not, in fact, from Aunt Jenny. Her email’s been hacked. You trash the email without ever opening it.
How did you know?
It could have been something obvious, such as Aunt Jenny addressing you as “dear friend” or claiming that she was stranded in Greece when you know full well she’s home — she came round for dinner last night for goodness sake. Or it could be something very, very subtle that you can’t actually put your finger on, but is unmistakably there. Perhaps the line, “I can not believe,” bumped you because Aunt Jenny doesn’t speak so formally (she’d have said ‘can’t’). What the email hacker is to Aunt Jenny’s email, your ‘off’ voice is to your character.
If this example is too colloquial, and a meaty craft discussion is more your cup of tea (forgive the mixed imagery) consider ‘voice’ as defined by the wonderful Linda Sue Park: Voice equals word choice plus rhythm. Rhythm equals punctuation plus sentence length.
If you are getting the feedback that readers are bumped by your character’s voice, take a closer look at what the character is saying, and how they’re saying it. What they’re noticing, and how they’re noticing it. Voice is the on-the-page reflection of how your character speaks and thinks. If your readers were kind enough to circle the places where “off voice” came up for them, look carefully at those passages and deconstruct the character’s experience in that moment. How are they acting, speaking, or processing the situation that’s different from how they’ve done so before? Are they suddenly too formal, like the example with Aunt Jenny above? Or have they said something that doesn’t bring with it everything we already know about them (like your aunt calling you “dear friend”)? Freeze time around your character at that point in the story, and use your imagination to project it out in front of you like you’re watching a movie. From this observational distance, can you spot the small change that needs to be made to right the inconsistency between what your reader would expect the character’s words/thoughts/acts to be, and what they currently are?
Some may wonder how the need for a consistent voice intersects with the transformation a character has to undergo. Think of them as parallel concepts. What your character learns as they are confronted with obstacles over the course of the story, and how that new understanding shows up in the choices they make, doesn’t intersect with the syntax they would use or their mental processing. In essence, their voice is a constant, even as their understanding is transformed.
We’re going to throw a wrench in the works here, and mention that there is also something commonly referred to as author voice that can play itself out in a manuscript. Based on the nature of the question, we concluded that character voice was the aspect at issue here. If you’ve struggled with author voice instead, leave us a note in the comments or email us to share more about how that’s come up for you. In the meantime, happy writing!