I actually started writing this as a completely different post (how I read differently now that I’m writing more seriously), but I ended up writing a lot about this voice, and I decided to go with it. Maybe I’ll write that other post another time. But for now, I’m talking only about voice. What is it that makes it so hard to capture? Is it something we think about when we read, or is it just there?
Voice in Books
First of all, if you’re sitting there wondering what I’m even talking about, let’s define “voice” when it comes to writing.
Voice is simply what makes a character stand out as an individual—what makes the character sound like them.
Voice can be established in a lot of ways—little repeated words and phrases, an attitude (such as a snarky teenage voice), worldview, phrasing, apparent education level that’s evidenced in word choice, etc. It’s actually really hard to define voice, and as a writer, I find that it can be even harder to capture.
My Struggle with Voice
I’ve been working hard on my middle grade book, trying hard to pin down that ever-elusive MG voice. Go to any workshop or conference where MG is discussed and they’ll tell you that voice is absolutely critical when it comes to younger readers. They just won’t tolerate bland characters. Which isn’t to say that older readers like bland characters either, but for MG it’s even more important to capture a bit of whimsy or uniqueness in your characters.
Plot and even individual character interactions come naturally to me, but creating a middle-grade main character voice that shines can be difficult. I find myself reserving all the truly fun lines for my secondary characters and making my narrator more steady or serious. This is somewhat ironic because I’m a complete goofball in regular life—I have all sorts of crazy phrases that I say on a regular basis, but somehow adding them into my books would feel … weird. And I’m also fairly sarcastic—if you sat in on me and my kids’ talking to each other, you’d find that we rarely have completely serious exchanges
Just a few of the crazy phrases I say on the regular:
- Dee-How. When I greet my family members or others who know me well, I usually say some version of “Howdy Dee-how,” (dee-how is just howdy backwards). This has now morphed into often skipping the “howdy” altogether and just saying “dee-how.” I also often say Aloha.
- Mystappeared: My kids grew up thinking this was a real word and didn’t realize until they were pre-teens that it wasn’t. I use it all the time to mean that something mysteriously disappeared. (As in, “The matches to those socks just mystappeared!”)
- O’Boise Idaho: I say this as an exclamation to mean “Oh boy.” Sort of a goofy way of saying something went slightly wrong. (As in, “O’Boise Idaho! I should’ve turned left there.”)
- Kiddidos and childreenos: I use these with my own kids and with my students. Both are just wacky ways of addressing kids.
- Random singing: I sing about everything. Like, seriously anything and everything. Taking out the garbage, petting the dogs, going to the doctor, my kids’ … there is no topic that does not merit a random (usually nonsensical) song.
I’m sure there are more, but this is the list that pops into my head after thirty seconds of introspection. In addition to my crazy phrases, I’m also fairly sarcastic—if you sat in on me and my kids’ talking to each other, you’d find that we rarely have completely serious exchanges. Our conversations generally involve random gibes and sarcastic, goofy observations.
So, if I’m a generally sarcastic and strange person, you’d think that I could naturally incorporate that into my writing easily, right?
Unfortunately, my family’s random silliness doesn’t seem like it would always translate all that well on the page. I mean, it’s sort of like an inside joke, right? Something that seems really funny to you at the time, but probably just looks strange to the rest of the world. And writing out randomness that feels natural doesn’t come as easily as I’d like. If I wrote a character who constantly said all the weird things I do, the character might just seem … weird.
Anyway, I’ve found a few strategies that help with middle-grade voice:
- Using a few goofy sayings. I mean, I can’t make my characters as weird as I am! (My main character does sometimes break out into random song, though.)
- Using dialogue instead of description, where possible. When I did my recent edit, one of my main strategies was to take my MC out of her head and have her speak her thoughts out loud a lot more. It’s a variation of “show, don’t tell” that made a big difference for me.
- Remembering who my characters truly are and what they want more than anything. I mean, this seems sort of obvious, but it can be hard to focus on sometimes. How do you make those character traits really shine throughout the narrative?
I’m sure I haven’t got the voice thing nailed perfectly, but I’m happy with my progress, and I feel like I’ve learned a ton in the process. I’m so thankful for that!
Now I’m wondering: How much (if at all) do you think about voice when you’re reading? We know when we fall in love with a character, but do we know why? What types of traits draw you to a particular character? Have you ever tried writing from the perspective of a character you love? (I suppose that’s why so many people are drawn to fan fiction, right?)
My reading has changed since I’ve been writing more seriously, and I find that voice is something that I pay a lot more attention to. It’s fun to sort of analyze what makes a voice stand out and why.
Anyway, I don’t know if any of this was useful … or entertaining … but these are my current musings.