On Voice

I’m tempted to subtitle this: Everything I learned about voice, I learned from Scott McNeil. It’s not entirely the case, but it’s close.

So anyway.

As a young!Merc I was aware of voice acting. I listened to a lot of audiobooks, and my favorites were the full-cast dramatizations*. I knew people could do different character-voices. (We listened to a lot of Recorded Books from the library. Those narrators are amazing.) But it never really clicked that the auditory vocal skills I admired so much had a written counterpart (or that, you know, the dramatizations were read from text). Until I watched Beast Wars: Transformers.

Me: I want to do that thing that I’m seeing—creating distinct voices and characters, but with words!

It grew from there.


Author Voice

When I hear people talk about voice in fiction, I tend to interpret it as “your author voice, yo.” That you-know-it-when-you-see-it thing. Your One Voice to Rule Them All (and usually you have to crawl around in a goblin cave to find it, and possibly play riddle games with creatures that want to eat you).

Authorial voice has a lot of influence in one’s work. How you express your ideas, your philosophy, how you string words together, the number of explosions you add, the tics and quirks you develop, the unique style and personality you extract from the blob-like blandness of the masses, your pet themes and tropes and squids, the imprint your brain makes on the page, etc. It’s a good thing to have. I approve of strong authorial voices.

(For example, Ursula Vernon has one of the funniest and awesome authorial voices, easily seen on her blog.)

There can also be a wide variety of masks stories wear. You can have multiple voices, little subroutines in the main program, that fit individual stories. They can have your authorial voice’s shadow, but be complete and distinct on their own.

It’s like flexing your (auditory) voice to become legion.

Character and Story Voice

Character voice is a filter through which the narrative is strained like loose leaf tea. The taste of the final brew depends on what kind of tea you use, how long you let it seep, what you add to it, and so on.

(The author makes the tea, but the author isn’t actually the tea. Er. I think we’ll drop the tea analogy before it gets too awkward.)

First, second, or third person, I like POV characters to have their own voice. Everything influences this: How they look at the word, what experiences color their behavior and choices, vocabulary, habitual traits, the telling details they notice, how they respond to being ambushed by starving velociraptors.

Story voice is similar—I’m not sure how to articulate the difference, exactly. In my head, story voice is the lighting and music score and camera angles and structure and tense and motifs that show up; it compliments and intertwines with the character voice, and sometimes it’s the sliding scale of closeness in point of view.

Finding the character voice, the story voice, is a huge step for me when tackling a story. I need to pin down the tone as much as the plot, the structure as well as the thematic elements, whether I will destroy the sun yet again, etc. I go into it thinking about voice. What do I want this one to sound like?


Drive-by examples:

CHIME by Franny Billingsley has an absolutely gorgeous, fascinating voice that shines on the page. It is uniquely Briony’s. (And that’s what I like—a voice that couldn’t be anyone else’s.)

Gemma Files’ dark, crazygood novel, A Book of Tongues, is another example of strong voice (and addictive prose).

(I now feel the need to keep yet another list of stories with excellent voice. That will take some compiling–an excuse for ALL the spreadsheets!)

How about you? What are your thoughts on voice?


*Oh, when I found Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques on audio, I was convinced for a week that I was dreaming. FULL CAST AND THE AUTHOR NARRATING? HOW COULD THIS BE? I had only imagined such awesomeness, such fangirl-fulfilling joy. But it was real, and I was the happiest Merc EVER. I did not let those cassette tapes out of my sight for a month.


This is posted for the a week of writing-related thoughts hosted by Chrystalla Thoma. Check out the rest!


  1. Voice is something I’m also trying to put my finger on– though with less success than you have. I always fear in my writing that all my characters are writing in subtle variations of “jasmine-voice,” and they have no real character voices of their own. Yours always have AWESOME voices, jsyk.


    1. *blush* Why, thank you!

      I really like your Jasmine-voice, for the record. 🙂

      I think, for individual characters, it just takes a lot of trial and error. You don’t want to see some of the early… attempts I had in this department. (Actually, you don’t want to see ANYTHING of early period Merc writing, because, well. There’s bad, and then there is the stuff that would make Cthulhu’s cultists insane from the terrible sound of the words mashed together.)


  2. Merc, thank you for this post! I’ve been thinking about voice a lot but I consider you the specialist in voice and you explain everything so well! 🙂
    Now if only I could make it work smoothly in my writing…


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