I recently tried to explain voice to a non-writer. I mangled the subject badly, prompting this post . . . an attempt to clarify my understanding of the term.
Publishing pros call for books with strong voice, a voice readers can relate to. For me, that voice is the narrator in my head that begins each story (for simplicity, let's assume the main character is always the narrator). The MC whispers a scene. One scene leads to another and as the story develops, so does the character. Their voice grows stronger, more distinct. By the end of the book, I know their history, their quirks, their secret dreams and greatest fears. I know how they talk and move. Most importantly, I know how they view and react to the world.
The challenge for writers is to translate the MC's point of view into words. From the opening sentence on the first page, the narrator is on stage. Joan Bauer's Hope Was Here starts: Somehow, I knew my time had come when Bambi Barnes tore her order into little pieces, hurled it in the air like confetti, and got fired from the Rainbow Diner in Pensacola right in the middle of lunchtime rush hour. That sentence defines the narrator as a keen observer and gutsy optimist who's looking for opportunities. I also sense she has a sense of humor from her colorful description of the ticket-shredding incident. Hope's personality, her voice, comes across loud and clear and I know from the opening, I'll love seeing this story through her eyes.
Protagonist's voices rise from a writer's experiences and you could say, each are versions of the writer's personality. But in order to fully realize the MC, writer's must be willing to face their own fears, prejudices, and fantasies; to explore unknown territory. The narrator should be free to have habits we dislike and think things we wouldn't. Their voice should speak the story without interference. Writers can't be cowards. Last year, a contemporary book I was working on stalled when I faced scenes I wasn't ready to write. Skimming through them with a watery version of the MC's point of view would have been a waste of time. I've restarted the book and I'm gathering courage. If I can't be true to the voice, I won't have a story worth telling.
In children's books, voice must be age appropriate. Many picture book writers capture the youngest readers with lovable characters who do laughable things. Middle grade readers are still dependent on their parents but they expect protagonists who solve their own problems without adult assistance. Middle grade voice is my favorite . . . straddling vulnerabilty, awkwardness, and the edge of maturity. Older teens are strongly influenced by hormones and the need to forge their own path. Most MC's in young adult books deal with love on some level and independence. The young adult voice runs the gamut from sweet to dark and gritty. Unlike those who write for adults, children's writers must tailor their story through a voice authentic to the intended reader.
One last thing about voice. Once the book is published, readers bring their voice to the page and how they experience the story is out of your control. At an SCBWI conference, author and creative motivational speaker Lisa McCourt shared her poem about the reader's voice. In it she says :
. . . It is your voice
saying, for example, the word barn
that the writer wrote
but the barn you say
is the barn you know or knew.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
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