Finding your writer's voice
Don Tate brought up one of my very favorite writing topics when he asked me about voice in our writing. He wondered, "How important is it that the author's voice match the characters voice or language particularly if the character is supposedly telling the story?"
The short answer? Voice is one of the most important elements in a story. Have you ever heard someone singing off-key and wish they would stop? What about a beautiful singer that you wanted to hear again and again? That's the difference between the wrong and right voice to tell your story.
Voice is elusive. It's you and it's not you. It's the character but it's not just the character. It's you, the sum total of your life experiences filtered through your character and his life experiences. It's the reason why I can show a writing class of 20 people the same picture of a child at the park who fell off the swing, is crying, looking around for someone, and how I can, and will always, get 20 different stories. (Not all of them using the right voice, but still.)
Here's another take on it from Andrea Weiss. She said, "Consider Meg Ryan and Meryl Streep. Ryan is cute and easy to relate to, but when we see her in a movie, do we ever forget she’s Meg Ryan? No. Streep, on the other hand, can play different roles and do different accents so convincingly that we have no idea who the real Meryl Streep is. You have to be the Meryl Streep of writing—you have to speak with different accents."
For me voice is connected to telling the truth when we write. If I tell the truth, write with emotional honesty, the character's voice will ring true. It doesn't mean all my characters are me but I do think it means I tap into the similarity of feelings in me that are true for my character. When I play it safe with my writing, my characters have no unique voice. Only when I dig into the real heart of me when do I start to hear the uniqueness of my character's voice. So for me, finding my character's voice means looking inside of me and finding my voice, and then giving it free rein to come to the surface.
If you've read any of my other posts you'll notice that writing with emotional honesty is a constant theme for me. And for a couple of good reasons. One, it has been a recent discovery for me and two, well, it works.
Now if you're one of those writers whose voice comes to them naturally, terrific, but go on, get out of here because I have been struggling to find, and then fighting with my writer's voice for 20 years or more.
You are in all your characters but not all your characters sound the same. You already have your voice, it's just buried under all the school rules and writing class rules and inner critic nags. If you can recognize that you already know what you need to do in order to write authentically, then you can work on feeling safe enough to do so. Make sense?
Jane Yolen says, "Even imaginary places need to be anchored in life."
I think that’s what voice does – it connects the imaginary places in our stories with our real life emotions.
Thaisa Frank, author of Finding Your Writer's Voice, says, "What makes one writer better than another writer is the writer’s ability to be honest with themselves as they tell the story."
Many beginning writers have characters and stories that all sound the same. What is said by one character could be said by any of the others. They often start writing from a fearful place, fear of their ability and often low self-esteem. If I ask these students to write a bio for me, just a snapshot of their lives, you know what I get? Voice. Yep. But in many cases they lose their voices when they try to act writerly. Hey, I speak from experience. Been there, done that, and am grateful for my critique group and editors who all keep me honest.
For me it is a lack of trust. When I write in my natural voice, it almost seems too easy and I don't trust it. That's what happened with an early version of HTR. Not that writing the book was easy but getting it down just flowed. Because it was easy, I didn't trust it and I "messed with it" until the voice was hidden in places.
I believe that we all have that individual voice inside of us, just like we have our own wonderfully distinct personalities. We just need to feel safe enough to be ourselves on paper.
Write on right now.