When fiction writers use the term ‘voice’ they generally mean one of two things: first, there’s a writer’s dominant, career-spanning ‘voice’ – think Hemingway, or Kerouac, or Updike, or Oates. Here, voice is a style, an immediately recognizable tenor or rhythm that screams that author’s name and no other. This kind of voice takes a lifetime to develop, if you’re lucky.
The second kind of voice is a bit less intimidating. This is the specific, dominant voice of a story. Think Holden Caulfield, or Nick Carraway, or any of the characters in The Help. Voice here is more than character, sentence structure and vocabulary – it’s the rhythm and flow of the words, the feel of the work.
The two kinds of voice are, of course, related, and both are often the subject of lots of hand-wringing and analysis, in fiction-writing manuals and MFA courses. How to find your voice? How to strengthen your voice? How to make your voice authentic, unique, unforgettable?
I want to talk about this second kind of voice (I’m afraid I can’t really help with the first kind – if you have any advice, let me know) and how you might develop something that lies, perhaps, outside your comfort zone.
I will give one very specific, very personal example, and it starts with The Wire. Are you familiar with the HBO show that follows a cast of drug dealers, journalists, educators, kids and cops in inner city Baltimore over the course of five amazing seasons? If not, go get it on Netflix. Now. The Wire is well known for the strength of its writing – novelist Dennis Lehane, for one, co-wrote a season. All the characters smack of authenticity, whether it’s the white, well-intentioned cop turned school teacher or the teenage drug dealer working the corner. Over the course of the six months or so that it took my husband and I to watch every single episode of The Wire, I became – and there’s no other word for it – obsessed. And not just with the story line and the characters – which are compelling and thought-provoking enough – but with the language.
The first episode drops the viewer right into the middle of an urban jungle, where Baltimore’s cops are struggling to fight the drug-related corruption and crime engulfing the city. For the first 30 minutes or so I watched in silence, baffled. I almost didn’t make it to Episode 2 for the simple reason that I could not understand what the characters were saying. Not the cops, not the kids, not the drug dealers. They all were speaking in voices that I had never heard before. Luckily, my husband insisted we persevere. We downloaded Episode 2 and before long, we were putting the kids to bed early so we could squeeze in two episodes per night.
As we made it through the first series (and then the second, third and fourth in short order), I started to jot down words and phrases that the characters were using – much along the lines of our own Carol Vogt’s word-gathering. I would also (much to my husband’s annoyance) pause and re-play scenes where I thought the language particularly arresting. I would repeat the characters’ words aloud (again: annoyed husband). I started playing around with some short stories using the new voice style that I was hearing on the show – I didn’t want to replicate the characters from the show, but I did want to explore the strange beauty of that language and the world inhabited by the people who spoke it.
After a lot of tinkering, I wrote a story called China Girl that felt right to me, and I sent it out. Ultimately it was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and generated some very positive feedback. I link to it here so you can be your own judge: did I get the voice right?
So here are some possible tips for developing a new voice – whether it’s for a short story, a specific character in a longer work, or a full-length first-person narrative:
- Immerse yourself. Whether it’s drying out your corneas watching back-to-back episodes of The Wire, or eavesdropping on the ladies at the diner on the corner: surround yourself with the voice you want to emulate and listen.
- Jot down words and phrases. Make a vocabulary list and refer to it as you write. I ended up with several pages of words and phrases that proved invaluable as I wrote China Girl.
- Speak aloud in your character’s voice. This will feel silly – just make sure you’re alone – but it helps immeasurably in maintaining the authenticity of voice.
- Don’t be afraid! Listen to Karen McHegg! Not every voice you try will work. Not every character will sing. Maybe the story never sees the light of day. Maybe you lose interest in the particular voice or it never sounds just right to you. But try. The skill of listening to how language is used will stay with you and enrich your future writing.