And we’re back to my bread and butter – getting uppity about writercraft.
When we talk about writing, we often talk about ‘voice’. And for once, today, I’m not disagreeing with people about this topic. I’ve talked about voice before, in general terms. Because yes, authorial voice is something that happens as you get more experienced with writing, until you pick your particular conglomeration of writing influences and there’s enough of them that you stop sounding like other people and start sounding like you.
But there’s another dimension to it which is often talked about as a separate thing, and it sort of is. At the same time, though, it sort of isn’t. It’s character voice.
I wanted to talk about these two together for a sec, because they make a nice exercise in compare and contrast.
First off: Definition of terms, because my university degree taught me at least one thing. When I talk about authorial voice, I mean all the little signature quirks of a writer that make them recognisable. If you have a favourite author whose work you could recognise instantly, even if it was a totally new book that a friend had handed to you covered in paper so you couldn’t tell who wrote it, then they have a very strong authorial voice. Terry Pratchett comes to mind. Neil Gaiman does, too, though he doesn’t have so much a strong voice as a strong style – I might not recognise a page of his writing, though I’d have a good chance, but I’d recognise his characters and plots a mile off. Cathrynne M. Valente, too.
A quick note: Authorial voice is not the same thing as being a cliché. Just like a dining chair and a bar stool are both technically chairs, but you’d hardly call them “the same thing with the serial numbers filed off”, authorial voice can still be used to create a vibrant range of worlds, people and ideas. It’s just the little threads of commonality running through them.
Character voice, on the other hand, is the author’s ability to make characters sound like real people, and to give the impression of a character’s personality using just their actions and dialogue. Ever read a character and you could not only hear their dialogue in your head, you could tell exactly what expression they were making, despite the author never mentioning it? That character had a strong character voice.
So the similarities are already pretty obvious. Strong character voice and strong authorial voice are both based around using words to create tonal consistency. The touchstones are often the same, too – some of the big things that we tend to pick up on are senses of humour, catchphrases or particular sentence structures, and the much more difficult to describe ‘particular ways of using words’. I’m going to have to explain with a reference here because it’s not something that you can really describe, at least, not without making a whole blog post all on its own. If you’ve ever read Douglas Adams, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Douglas Adams has a style that’s even more instantly recognisable than Pratchett. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, which feels like “having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”. “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so”. “He was staring at the instruments with the air of one who is trying to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade in his head while his house is burning down”. Douglas Adams was a master of setting up expectations and then subverting or reversing them, and he had a particular way of using words to say exactly what he meant, which was something very slightly different to what the words themselves meant individually.
Of course, you don’t need to be a linguistic prodigy like Douglas Adams to make a strong voice, authorial or character. He’s just the author who traded most in that particular aspect of writing, so I can use him as an easy reference for what I mean when I talk about idiosyncratic word usage.
The intention of that large and tangential block of text was to demonstrate that authorial voice and character voice, from a technical perspective, use pretty much the same techniques, and readers recognise character and authorial voice by looking for the same patterns.
The difference, in my opinion, is in how the author needs to approach them.
I’m a bit sceptical about the idea that you can’t be deliberate about your authorial voice. On one hand, it’s admittedly very hard to do, because usually by the time you’re really getting a handle on the techniques required, you’re already well on your way to having one. But like anything to do with writing, the authorial voice can be changed and tweaked. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone say they’re really unhappy with their authorial voice, though I’d be interested to know if that’s a thing that does happen. In my mind, authorial voice tends towards the things we like in writing anyway, because they’re the things that we tend to practice try to repeat when we write. Even if you’re deliberately taking inspiration from certain sources from the start (because you want to write for a certain market), you’ll be replicating the things you like about that particular writing style, and trying to minimise the things you don’t. But I’m only one person with one person’s experience. I know I’ve heard people complaining that they have a story that they want to write but it’s in an unfamiliar genre or otherwise removed from what they usually write – a more comedic story for a normally serious writer, for example.
And I’m getting off topic again. Authorial voice, I think, can be tweaked and adjusted deliberately, and aimed, but a lot of the process happens unconsciously as a result of what we practice and learn.
Character voice, on the other hand, I think has to be more deliberate. We might not choose our own influences as a writer all the time, but I think we definitely have to make very deliberate choices about character personality, so that they fit into the story we want to tell. There’s a whole other topic in here that I’ll get to at some other point, which is about exactly how much authors control characters, but that’s for another time. For now, I’ll just go ahead assuming that even if characters change organically during writing, going into the story there is at least an idea of what sort of personality a character has – whether they’ll like to joke or be overly formal or be young and naïve or old and ‘been-there-done-that’. In order for those traits to come through, the writer will need to curate as they write what sorts of things the character might or might not say. They’ll take into account level of education, and whether a character would normally use certain words, and whether a character would swear regularly or only if pushed or not at all for any reason. While you won’t go through and make these decisions consciously for every character – there are just too many variables – you’ll still end up going through and asking yourself “does this sound in character or not?” as you write, and that will accomplish the same task.
To take the broad-strokes differences (of course, there are shades of grey and counterexamples to this, and not everyone will work the same way, this is just the sweeping generalisation version), authorial voice is the result of practice and self-discovery. Character voice is the performance art version.
The trick, often, is separating them. Authorial voice feels natural, and it’s almost by definition the things that you tend to be best at when writing. This is why you can end up with the Joss Whedon problem. Have you ever noticed that every character in Joss Whedon’s works sound kind of the same? Not substantially enough to make the stories worse (in most cases), but they all have the same kind of sarcasm. They crack the same kind of jokes. Fun, sparky Kaylee has the same deadpan humour as cynical, world-weary Mal Reynolds. It’s sometimes not obvious at first glance, but it’s something that even the fans admit is part of his style. Now, obviously he’s wildly popular, so it wasn’t exactly detracting from the enjoyability of his work, but it is something that a lot of newbie writers struggle with, before they have the experience to build the structures around the characters that make that sort of thing a minor flaw or quirk rather than a demonstration of inexperience.
I know I’ve really glossed over a lot in this topic, and I didn’t want to get into a deep discussion of exactly what makes character voice and authorial voice, but I did want to get my thoughts down on the different approach you need to take with both of them, and the similarities that I think it’s important to acknowledge. I’d be really interested to hear about experiences with authorial voice and character voice in the comments, and how you approach these things.