On Voice, by Michael Ford
The dreaded ‘V’ word is beloved of editors. If you’re a writer with dreams of publication, you’ve quite possibly received the odd rejection letter from an agent or publisher with the justification that they ‘didn’t fall in love with the voice’. On the one hand, it’s a frustrating response, but on the other it reveals an important lesson – on an instinctive level, the narrative tone of a book needs to speak to readers and draw them in.
When novels are told from a first-person perspective (‘I did this/did that’), the voice is inherent: the character is speaking directly to us, so the voice should be theirs, be it hyperactive, laconic, idiotic, snobbish, musing, pessimistic, or whatever. Even when the narrative is third person (‘s/he did this/did that’) voice can be conveyed in the narrative by sticking close to the character’s POV, so everything comes through the filter of their personality. Several of the popular voices in contemporary children’s fiction are idiosyncratic (eg, Greg Heffley’s deadpan narrative in Diary of a Wimpy Kid). If the novel is historical, we expect that to be reflected in word choice and sentence structure, so it avoids anachronism (eg, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). For Young Adult fiction especially, a reader expects a teenage voice, laced with teenage sensibilities (eg, tortured Bella Swan in the Twilight saga).
Alternatively, some writers have a very strong authorial voice, so the story is coloured with their particularly stylised ‘brand’, such as Neil Gaiman’s quietly sinister tone in The Graveyard Book and Coraline; or the whimsical humour in many of Roald Dahl’s stories; or the zany observations of Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum stories; or, to mention adult fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic idiom in his modern Appalachian noir. Many writers acquire their voices through use and familiarity – it seems natural for Lee Child to move in short, punchy, muscular sentences in his Jack Reacher novels, and this voice perfectly fits the macho character of his protagonist. Other writers do so by an act of ventriloquy, and write in several different voices – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas being an astonishing example of vastly different voices across several time periods.
Successful novels don’t have to have a strong voice – Harry Potter doesn’t, for instance, and the popular ‘everyman’ thrillers often adopt a neutral voice – so it’s not the be all and end all… if the story is compelling enough in its own right. But to generate immediate intimacy with your protagonist, or simply to make a reader sit up and take notice, a recognisable voice is one of a writer’s most useful tools.