Why Is Voice in Writing So Hard? And Do You Think About It When You Read? Let’s Discuss.

Posted April 11, 2018 by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction in Let's Discuss / 42 Comments

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? 

Well, no.

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.

What do you think about voice and what makes you truly love a character? I want to know!


42 responses to “Why Is Voice in Writing So Hard? And Do You Think About It When You Read? Let’s Discuss.

  1. Interesting. I think I pay attention to character most when reading a book with alternating narrators. I have an issue when the characters all sound the same. Each character needs to have an individuality, their own voice. I think in a single narrator book, I don’t notice it as much, and maybe it’s not quite as important. Although the books I fly through are usually the ones with great voice.

  2. I don’t really think about voice at all when I’m reading, the only time I notice it is when it’s done badly and doesn’t seem to match the character. That’s jarring and pulls me out of the story. So I guess the challenge for a writer is to make the voice so convincing that the reader doesn’t even notice it.

  3. I would say I don’t consciously notice voice unless something is wonky. If a character suddenly changes personality or behavior at some point without any indication as to why then I’m definitely jarred out of the story. But when I’m reading for pleasure I’ll only contemplate voice and characterization once I’m writing a review. I like to think of that as a good thing, though: if I’m reading what your characters are doing, rather than picking it apart, you’ve captured my attention!

    JJ @ This Dark Material recently posted: dust motes: march 2018
  4. I think voice is super important, and it sounds like you are working really hard to make your characters have stand out voices. Characters for me need to have their own voices and personalities and they need to be consistent, even if they grow as a character.

  5. Voice is super important in a book! Fortunately, it was always something that came easy to me. I didn’t focus on it or anything. It just came on its own because I’m SO focused on making my story around my characters’ personality and life instead of building the story before the characters. I get to know my characters into great detail before I even start the outline. So voice always comes easy to me because my characters are so alive in my head when I start writing and I just let them tell the story.

    Bee (Quite The Novel Idea / Novel Ink) recently posted: In Which Bee Questions if Her Voice Still Matters In This Community
    • I’m really glad that voice comes so easily for you! My biggest problem is that my character is a little quieter and in her head a lot, which I’ve been told works well for YA, but not so well for MG. I had to work to make sure she’s engaging for MG readers. It’s been a learning process, but I’ve actually really enjoyed it!

  6. I agree that voice is everything. As a reader, I tend to only really notice the voice when it’s *not* working. If it’s seamless, I barely notice it. But if it’s clunky or not ringing true… it becomes a stumbling block. I think it’s most apparent to me when a male character isn’t believable because his thoughts/dialogue sound just like the female character (if that makes sense) and when a character’s dialogue doesn’t sound age-appropriate (a teenager who still sounds like she’s 12, or a 10 year old who talks like she’s 20). I’ve never really considered it from a writing point of view, but that has to be one of the hardest things to get just right.

    Tanya @ Girl Plus Books recently posted: Review: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren
  7. Oh gosh, voice can be the worst to capture when you’re writing. I know a lot of reviews complain about dual narrators that sound alike, so I think it’s something a lot of us notice, but maybe not all the time. I think first person narration helps, because the character is speaking directly to you, even if they aren’t saying anything out loud in the book. I think it makes you closer to them; like you know them and I suppose a lot of that comes from voice, though I don’t really think about it at the time.

    That’s great you’ve found ways to try and bring your MC’s voice out more. And I love all the random phrases, etc. that you do! I’m kind of crazy like that too – saying certain words or phrases over and over, etc. People tell me I’m funny, but I have a hard time writing funny on the page. It’s a gift!


  8. I absolutely pay attention to voice when reading (and writing) because voice is what makes the character interesting…or not. I like heroines that are unconventional – snarky, witty, smart. I like heroes who are alpha but have mushy centers and who demonstrate that through words as well as actions. I don’t read much MG but I could see where it would be even more important there. You’re trying to hook a young reader whose attention could be easily caught by something else. So voice, particularly for the MC, is important. And I can see where it’d be a challenge, Nicole. But I bet you’re doing okay making your MC unique and not too weird. 🙂

  9. I think about voice when I’m reading, but not as much as my writing professors seemed to. It felt like we were discussing voice constantly in college. Maybe I only notice voice when it’s done really well or really poorly? I think there’s a fine line between a unique character and an annoying character. I like seeing a character’s personality, but I don’t want it to distract from the plot. Interesting post!

    • I agree that voice is most noticeable when it’s done really well or really poorly. MG is an interesting age group because I think you need to be a little more fun and unique in your voice. It’s funny because I based my MC on certain aspects of my daughter’s personality (she has some low-key anxiety issues that make her quiet—especially in group environments), but I failed to capture her fun and goofy personality at first because I think I shied away from that. I realized that in my attempt to make her more serious, I made her too one-dimensional, especially for a MG. I think I’ve done a much better job with it after revisions!

  10. This is something that I’ve been thinking about recently because for the first time ever, I am sitting down and trying to edit a novel I wrote (which basically means I’m rewriting it…). Anyhow, I started to really get into descriptions and this and that– but I realized that I was writing from my perspective, not the narrator’s perspective. Does that make sense? Like my novel is 1st person POV and I want the main character to be…well, not me, but I have to be careful that she describes things like she would perceive them, not how I would. It’s been a struggle.

    Anna @ Read and Repeat recently posted: How to hobby: embroidery
  11. This is a really great topic. Because I mostly only read on audio these days, I feel like the voice actors really bring the character’s voice to life. Reading a flat character on a page is really awkward and if you can really get in their head and can hear them when reading, that makes them a fun character.

  12. I totally get what you mean with this, because I struggle getting the voice right with my characters too (and I don’t think I’ve ever written a character as young as middle grade, so I imagine that’s an even harder voice to write in!). They always just feel too much the same, or too wacky. Like if I have a character whose meant to be quite sarcastic, then I make literally everything they say really sarcastic, and it ends up being too much. There’s no middle ground with me!
    I think I only take in character voice when I’m actually reading though on a subconscious level. Because it must be what makes me like or not like a character (as well as their actions), but I don’t consciously notice it as I’m reading. That’s why I was thinking I might take a really close look sometime at the dialogue for some of my favourite characters to work out how the author did it, and maybe I can apply that to writing my own character’s voices.
    Great post! 🙂

  13. For me, it sometimes depends on the book. If there is a really specific and good voice for a character, I will definitely notice it, and I’ll say something about it in my review. If it’s well done, but nothing in particular stands out to me, I might not notice. And if it’s badly done, I notice it. Sometimes, I notice it so much it becomes difficult for me to continue reading.
    I bet it’s really hard to find your characters’ specific voices, Nicole. Yet another reason why I won’t write any books – just read them 😉

    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted: Review: Oceanside – Michelle Mankin
  14. I do think about this when I’m reading. If there are multiple POVs, and they sound the same, even if they’re in 3rd person, it’s disappointing to me. And I’ve noticed that most POVs honestly sound fairly similar, probably because many writers come from somewhat similar cultures/educations/societies/etc. I mean, the voices are not exactly the same, but similar enough that they don’t particularly stand out. Does that make sense? But that’s why I LOVE when I find a book with a character whose voice really stands out and is completely different from my own and from what I usually find.

    But with my own writing, I’ve realized just how hard it is to write distinct voices. I feel like all my characters just sound like me. So I do cut authors slack when it comes to voices and instead usually just point it out when the voice is particularly great!

    • Yes, I tend to write like me as well! It’s hard not to for my MC. I feel like I can have secondary characters with more unique voices, but when it comes to the MC it’s some version of me. I realized, though, that I was leaving out all of the goofy parts of “me,” and some of them would help with my MG voice. 🙂

  15. I feel like voice is one of those things we don’t necessarily think about while reading, but we definitely know if it is missing? And hard to define, even. Like I can’t always put my finger on what it is that makes it special, but almost just feeling like I “know” the character, like they seem like an actual human?

    Middle Grade has to be tough though. I don’t think I could do it- partly because I don’t fully remember my own voice from when I was that age? Oddly, I feel like when I am writing, one thing I CAN do is voice, but it’d never lead anywhere because my plots are… well, they’re non-existent. I think I need a packaged book or something to write ?

    • Yes, I feel like I often write as me (minus my verbal quirks), and I definitely have to fight that instinct. And I’m finding MG harder to capture than YA, which is what I read more often. I didn’t fully realize how different voice is in the two age groups!

  16. Oh, this is so tricky! I find that after I come up for air from a really good book, I sort of write in the voice of that book (not exactly, but kind of) without knowing it. However, I find that the more I write the faster my own voice shines through again. This post has definitely given me something to think about!

  17. Jen

    Voice is extremely important to me. It’s how I connect to the characters and I feel the differences between multiple characters. I just finished a book….Glitter & Sparkle and the girl had one of my favorite voices ever. I quickly connected, I loved how she spoke and I especially loved her thoughts and I felt the same way with everyone else in the book too. If the voice has that big of an impact on me then a lot of times I’ll mention it in my review. 🙂

  18. Kiddidos and childreenos xD that’s awesome. My family also has a LOAD of made up words. I think that’s the funniest thing about having a family. You can have a language. And that’s probably how languages even came up 😀

    I think what matters in middle grade very much is the warmth (this is something that is almost never present in YA). It’s got to be there… This sense of safety. It’s why I love most MG books! And that’s why I dislike a lot of YA books – the voice is too confrontational and just.. isn’t relaxing for me at all. Amps up the anxiety! MGs do the opposite, somehow.

  19. Yes I think a MG voice is very hard to attained! and young readers know what they want! 🙂

    Mastering Voice in general is very hard stuff! The overall author voice vs each character voice, even blogger voice! I’m have a very peculiar sense of humor that comes across as sarcastic in RL and it has been hard to rein that back and not let it go out when I blog, especially when I comment because I’ve notice it comes across too assertive sometimes and many people don;t like it !

    Those are fantastic tips and I’ll try them with my WIP! Awesome post!

  20. I found this post on your discussion list so far for the year and had to read it! I think all the goofy things you say would translate well in the right character. 😉 Voice for me is quite important and the best voices are the ones that make you forget you’re reading a book! I think all the responses on this post in the comments would have a great new post for writers. I read quite a few and they were informative to me as a writer. ❤️

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