On writing...author's voice...

What is an author's voice? And how is it different from a character's voice? If you are a writer, you have likely grappled with these questions at one time or another. Perhaps you still do. It is a topic that has no easy answer, but if you will bear with me, I will attempt that answer. An author's voice and characters' voices are not the same, and yet, they are inextricably intertwined. Characters in a novel should be distinct from one another, like people we know in person. Part of the way they show that difference comes through in their actions, their dialogue, and their habits, but most of all through the way they talk to themselves - the way they think.

For example, in the NYTimes Bestselling novel, The History of Love, author, Nicole Krauss, has created the character of an old Jewish man, another of a young girl, a third of a young boy (the girl's brother), among others. The old Jewish man was my favorite because he sounded old and Jewish, not only in the way he spoke but the way he thought. I've been around enough people who are considered old to realize how frankly the author captured the way an elderly person thinks. The character was funny and tragic, and he made a memorable impression. (Warning: This book contains some things that might be objectionable, so read with caution.)

In NYTimes Bestseller Birds Without Wings, Louis De Bernieres weaves an interesting tale of a time set around the Ottoman Empire. His cast of characters include Muslims and Christians and Arameans as neighbors. The characters were rich and poor, educated and uneducated, adults and children. And each character carried a voice so unique that you immediately stepped into his or her world the moment the chapter from their point of view began.

On the other hand, I have read books where you cannot tell where one character leaves off and another begins except for the name and setting change. Sometimes characters from the same series can sound like the same person with a different name and occupation tacked on. Others speak the same way or think the same way, giving the characters nothing that sets them apart. This is one of the biggest challenges we face in writing.

To write characters with unique voices comes down to good characterization, getting to know our characters inside and out, to know their motives and how they would think. This is all important to good storytelling.

But this is not the same as the author's voice.

An author's voice is more like an imprint, like the artist's signature on a painting or the musician's touch in the way he makes the notes sing. This can be reflected in the use of metaphor or simile (or lack thereof), in the use of dialogue or description or the poetic turn of a phrase. It is how the author speaks to the reader through the voices of the characters and through the way she uses descriptive narrative.

Author's voice is evident no matter what point of view is used, whether first person, third person, present tense, omniscient or any variety of viewpoints in between. It is the personality of the story, how the author connects with the reader. And it is something you do not learn by reading how-to books or taking classes on writing. It comes from the practice of writing the story and the next story and the next...

The more you write, the more you will sound unique, not all that different than when a child first learns to speak. The more that child mimics the sounds of others, the more he grows and finally, at some point many years down the road, he learns not only to say words out loud but to speak his own mind using his own unique thoughts. In that moment, his voice will become recognizably his own.

The same is true for writers. We start out learning to write be by mimicking other writers. The more we practice and grow and learn, the quicker our voice will become recognizably our own.

Happy writing~