Today in writer’s glossary…
When talking about something read, rather than spoken, voice seems a bit redundant. The words are heard in the head, so why would a novel need a voice?
A particular story’s voice comes from whichever character is taking the POV. Their voice informs the tone, quirks, phrases and rhythm of the narrative. In first person, that will always be the central character. Some third-person novels also follow just one person, but more often they take the view point of several main characters. At all times, the narrative is being observed and described by the character we are currently following, which means we are ‘hearing’ their voice as we read. The more their voice sounds like a real, distinct person, rather than a text book, or the same character with another name, the more real that character becomes.
Giving your main characters distinct voices helps the reader identify them, especially when writing in third-person. It can also go a long way to establishing their personality. George R R Martin is brilliant at this. To write from the POV of a royal dwarf as convincingly as from an eight-year-old girl, and do so convincingly, is testament to his skill.
Sometimes a character’s voice is with you even as you type ‘Chapter 1’. Other times, you need to think about how they sound. Being clear before you start is thus a good idea, unless you enjoy rewriting. Do they swear or blaspheme? Do they have vocal tics such as using ‘like’, or ‘sort of’ as buffers in their sentences? Are they apt to use slang? Even the length of sentences, their structure and emphases can help give a character more distinction.
It’s important to make their voice sustainable, though. Giving them lots of quirks at the start, making them too eccentric, too ‘individual’, can be a difficult trick for a writer to maintain throughout their novel. It’s easy to lose that colourful voice over the course of the book. By the end the character may sound nothing like they did at the beginning. Plus, of course, they might come across as irritating, or a caricature.