Writing Wednesday: On Voice

Somehow it’s Wednesday already, so it’s time for another Writing Wednesday post. One of the things betas and readers have mentioned to me over and over again about The Orchid and the Lion is Dorian’s voice. It jumps off the page and really fits the character as a whole. And I’ve been told that many of my other characters have unique voices of their own, as well. I figured I should probably talk a bit about what voice is, why it’s important, and how I shape my characters’ voices.

First, What is voice?

To borrow from a MasterClass article:

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner. Novels can represent multiple voices: that of the narrator and those of individual characters.

To break it down further, voice is the unique way in which the author and/or the characters “speak.” This can refer to internal monologue, descriptions, dialogue, whatever. Some writers have a strong voice, while others don’t. Some characters are “voice-y,” while others aren’t.

Voice can be created using particular vocabulary words or turns of phrase, length of sentences, and level of sophistication of a character’s speech. It can also include accents or dialects, dropped middles or endings of words, and tone of voice, among other things. In visual media, think of how Eeyore talks versus how Winnie the Pooh talks. Now think about how that gets depicted in the original stories. (I couldn’t copy and paste the actual text, so take a moment to go read the first few paragraphs and come back.)

Through a mixture of descriptive words, phrasing, and tone, A. A. Milne is able to show the differences between Pooh and Eeyore pretty easily.

But Gabe, you may ask, How important is voice?

When I was considering querying my first novel, I looked at a lot of manuscript wishlists and comments that agents made. One of the things that kept coming up over and over again was voice. Didn’t even matter the genres these agents were into. They wanted voice-y books and voice-y characters.

Part of this has to do with interest level. It’s super boring reading a book where all the characters talk and act the same. If you think about your friends and family, you’ll realize that all of them express themselves differently. Some mumble nervously; some talk with huge hand gestures; some use hundred-dollar words when five-dollar words will do. Some have words or phrases they use over and over again or a particular tone of voice that you’d know even blindfolded in a crowd. Characters should be the same way, especially if they’re main characters or play an important role in your work.

Another reason why agents (and readers) love voice is that it helps make characters memorable. I’ve read characters that did the reading equivalent of going in one ear and out the other. They didn’t stick out to me in any real way. Then there are other characters that will live forever in my brain because they left an impression on me. The forgettable characters had nothing about them that stuck out to me, including the way they talk. By giving your characters a unique voice, they not only become discernable from each other, they also stick in readers’ minds.

Lastly, voice is fun. Anyone can write a book that reads like an instruction manual. But when your narrator (or your third-person narration) is voice-y, the plot and characters come alive. Think of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Catcher in the Rye, or A Clockwork Orange. Regardless of how you feel about those books, really consider the way they’re written. Think about Bridget’s casual way of speaking. Think about Holden’s whiny teenage musings. Think about how you basically have to learn a new language in order to read Alex’s story of ultraviolence.

But books don’t need to be in first person in order to have voice. One of the masters of this is Terry Pratchett (RIP, you wonderful man). Here’s a snippet from Soul Music:

Death walked thoughtfully across the hill to the place where a large white horse was placidly watching the view.

He said, GO AWAY.

The horse watched him warily. It was considerably more intelligent than most horses, although this was not a difficult achievement. It seemed aware that things weren’t right with its master.

I MAY BE SOME TIME, said Death.

And he set out.

Not only do we get a taste for character voice (Pratchett’s Death always speaks LIKE THIS), but we also get a sense of that delightfully cheeky humor that Pratchett gives everything he writes–including the serious bits. When you read anything out of a Discworld novel–even if you aren’t told that’s what you’re reading–you know you’re reading something out of a Discworld novel.

Okay, so How the hell did you do it?

The first part of this is going to piss you off. So, sorry about that. Dorian’s voice came to me naturally. From the moment I sat down to write this book, his cheeky but sophisticated way of speaking just flowed out of me. That’s because Dorian’s honestly a lot like me in how he talks. I jazzed it up a bit when he was trying to be seen as more sophisticated, but his sentence structure, level of vocabulary, and amount of sass are pretty close to my own. He’s maybe a little sassier than I am. Here’s an example of Dorian’s voice:

The man who’s just left my room was a snooze-fest. When he’d first walked in that evening, I’d been intrigued. He’d worn a mask over his eyes, insisted on paying cash, wouldn’t give a name besides John. Often, men like that have the dirtiest fantasies and the most creative minds. But all he’d wanted was to be spanked while he’d jerked off into a pair of panties. They weren’t even my panties. Hell, I wasn’t even naked.

The way Dorian talks is a result of his posh upbringing mixed with the realities of his life as a sex worker. He’s often verbose and uses sophisticated vocabulary, but he’s not shy about swearing or openly talking about sex in a crude way. Here’s him talking to Laith the night before they negotiate their arrangement:

“Part of this is going to be figuring out which punishments are effective, which are not, and which are too much for you to handle. I need you to be completely honest with me every step of the way. If you lie about something, it could come back to bite you in the ass with a client.”

Now, this next part is going to make you no longer pissed at me: I struggled SO HARD with Laith’s voice. And I’m struggling even more now that I’m writing book two from his perspective.

Laith and Dorian are very different characters. Dorian is a booksmart bitch from a rich family who’s been a sex worker for almost ten years; Laith is an Air Force veteran raised by a struggling single parent who’s brand new to the job. While he and Dorian are both brilliant in their own ways, Laith’s a man of few words who doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone with his manner of speech. Dorian is caviar; Laith is meat and potatoes.

When I wrote the first draft, there was a little bit of Laith in the way that he spoke. He used a lot of “gonna’s” and often spoke in fragments. But I would slip into Dorian’s voice far too much while writing Laith’s dialogue, and it took a lot of work with my critique partner to get it right. By the time the first book was published, I had (mostly) nailed the way he talks. I’ll admit that there are some lines I probably should have worked on a little more, but I also wanted to show that Laith and Dorian picked up on each other’s speech patterns a bit as the book progresses–Dorian uses fragments and at least one “gonna,” while Laith has a few “going to’s” and some more sophisticated vocab words by the end.

To show the difference between the two of them, here’s an exchange of theirs during one of my favorite scenes in the book–the infamous heist:

“Give me a boost,” I tell Laith, taking off my coat.

He reaches down to help me up, then drops my foot. “You’re wearing stilettos to a heist? Are you shitting me? 

“Being sneaky and being gorgeous do not have to be mutually exclusive,” I say.

“Climb on the desk, man. Not gonna let you stab through my hands with those daggers.”

“Why are you being so difficult?”

“Because you’re being ridiculous!”

Just from these six lines, readers are able to tell certain things about the characters–which is a huge part of the importance of voice. It should reflect characters’ pasts as well their presents. It should encompass their personalities, upbringings, environment, class, education level, etc. Dorian and Laith, for example, both went to college. Dorian’s way was paid by his wealthy parents, while Laith joined the military in order to get there. Dorian finished school, but Laith dropped out because of PTSD. Dorian was a World Lit major while Laith was doing a liberal arts program with plans to go to law school. Each of these factors affects their way of speaking.

There are other secondary characters in the book who have distinct voices: Frank, with its inexplicable New Yorker accent; Yousef with his good-natured humor; Belle with her commanding presence; Peter with his privileged white boy bullshit. Then there are the minor characters–some of whom have voice, others who don’t. It depended on whether or not they were important to the story and/or they were there for a specific reason.

The last character I’m going to talk about is Clinton. He’s only in one scene, but he serves two purposes in the book. One is a spoiler, so I’m keeping my mouth shut on that; the other, though, is a bit deeper. Clinton is a proper older English gentleman who has never left Earth before. He’s gay, but he’s had to hide that side of him as much as humanly possible because of the Purity Laws. While the reader doesn’t get to know that about him, they do get to hear about how he’s never been able to explore kink before. He’s been curious about being a Dom for decades, and he finally gets a chance to try it out on his first ever trip to the space station.

Here’s a snippet of Clinton during his session with Dorian and Laith:

“Now spank him,” I tell him. 

“How?”

I hold back a laugh, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I rub Laith’s ass cheek as I say, “You want to use an open palm. You’ve smacked someone before, right?”

He nods and gets a thousand-yard stare for a moment. “Richard Torr. That bastard stole my boyfriend freshman year of college.” When he snaps out of it, he says, “Should I pretend that this lovely young man’s derrière is Richard’s smarmy face?”

Laith does laugh, and I give him a quick pat on the ass to quiet him. 

“If it helps,” I say, stifling a smile. 

Throughout this scene, Clinton goes from being repressed and unsure of himself to embracing his inner Dom and unleashing a side of him that had been tamped down for so long–“’That’s not even full speed, slut,’ he says without a trace of a blush.” He never loses the poshness he brings to the table, but his speech and mannerisms get more open and wanton as the scene progresses.

And, while his Britishness is part of what I wanted to talk about, I also bring him up because he exemplifies the last thing I want to say about voice.

Voice changes!

As your characters develop and go through their arcs, their voice should grow and develop with them. Got a Cockney woman who gets taught how to be a “proper” lady? That should show in how she talks. Got a nervous young woman who finds an inner strength she never knew she had? Better be shifting that inner monologue as the story progresses. Does your main character start the story as a little boy and end it as an old man? He sure as hell shouldn’t talk the same throughout the book.

The main things to remember when it comes to voice, in my opinion, can be summed up in the handy-dandy acronym VOICES.
Vocab — What words and phrases do your characters use that are unique to them or that show their character?
Opinion — How do they feel about themselves? About others? About the world around them? This encompasses things like tone and point of view.
Internality vs. Externality — Who are they really vs. who do they show the world? Inner thoughts vs. dialogue.
Characteristics — Are they from a rich family? A poor family? Somewhere in the middle? What’s their race/ethnicity? Their religion? Where did they grow up? Do they have a pronounced accent or speech impediment? Personality traits and where a person comes from are all hugely important to voice.
Education — Do they have a degree? Are they streetsmart vs. booksmart? Did they drop out of kindergarten? A Ph.D. in philosophy and a high school dropout shouldn’t have the same voice.
Syntax/Sentence Structure — Do your characters speak in long, drawn out sentences? In fragments? Do they refuse to end a sentence with a preposition? Do they mix up word order because English isn’t their first language? Syntax and sentence length can go a long way to showing a character’s voice.

So that’s all I have for you today. Do you feel you and/or your characters have voice? Do you have questions or comments about this topic? Leave those in the comments!

-Gabriel

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