Switching voices

I know a thing or two about writing in multiple voices.

My day job as a feature writer and editor requires me to write in a standard journalistic voice.   Before I was hired by Working Partners to write YA novels, I wrote historicals.  The First Daughter series is heavy on contemporary teenage lingo, like, OMG yannow?.  And now I’ve been asked to provide a sample for a horror novel in a traditional voice.  Then there is the voice I use for Writer Unboxed posts.  Sometimes I feel like Sybil accessing the different voices in my head.

I don’t think I’m unique in my ability to write to fit whatever genre I’m working in.  I’m of the school you can train yourself to write in a specific voice.  Sure, it’s easier if your natural writing voice fits the genre you target, but writing is both a trainable skill and an art.  Voice is where the two meet.

How do I do it?  It doesn’t happen just like that.  It takes a little preparation.

1.  If you’re switching from say contemporary suspense to a historical, read up on the genre to get a feel for the voice. Please note that I’m not saying to imitate the voice of an author; it’s better if you read two or three books anyway.  I’m of the belief we all have our own writerly voices which end up shining through during the drafting process, so don’t worry about unconsciously being imitative at first.  Using a slick modern voice riddled with street slang is not going to work for a historical anymore than dropping more traditional words in a thriller will work when you’re going for a gritty feel.  You’ll need your brain to dial into the new voice. 

2.  Swapping voices doesn’t happen right away, at least it doesn’t for me.  Give yourself time to faff around with the new voice for at least a chapter or two.  Feeling your way through the new voice is normal, and backsliding to the old voice crops up occasionally.  Try not to get frustrated with yourself at this point.  Your new voice will eventually click in.  Promise.

3.  Have someone  who you trust read your stuff.  Many times I find an anachronism creeping into a historical, and lots of times my critique parter (oh hai, Therese!) finds stilted language in my contemporaries.

4.  I’m not gonna lie, switching voices takes time and practice.  With my feature story work, I’ve been doing it so long I can access that part of my brain instantly.  When I’d been asked to provide a sample for the First Daughter series, I read a few books to get an idea of pacing, how far the slang should go, how “chirpy” the dialogue.  Luckily that voice matches my own speaking voice pretty closely (what can I say, LOL !OMG!).  For the horror novel, I took a step back from the slang and deliberately stripped the voice to be spare with emphasis on exposition rather than dialogue, since the book is psychological.  For my historicals, I go for lushness. Keeping each voice distinct helps when you need to switch between them.

There you have it: my tips for switching voices. Do you need to write in a few different voices?  How do you make the switch?  Or are you a one-voice type of writer? Let us know in the comment section how you do (or don’t) do it.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    I loved this. I’ve heard so many times ‘voice’ and it seems to imply only ONE thing… not a hopping around. Yet when I was first writing, I intentionally experimented with different genres–testing the waters, if you will. I’m not a bad mimic, actually. But when I get into a long work, I find my VOICE is still there, whether the main story is silly and meandering, or intense and dark. Though the voice of each character is different.

    I choose to stick to that dark voice for the novels I write–I like those STORIES better. But I find when I am distracted (editing another work or querying for instance) that it is much harder to tap that one than the humorous, silly one (I probably just need the release).
    .-= Hart´s last blog ..Calling All Art Thieves! =-.

  2. says

    Ah, good question. I thought I was a “one voice gal” until I started my current WIP. My usual clipped sarcasm just didn’t work for this particular MC’s voice. I had to train myself to use a more fluid style. It’s been a treat, though. Always nice to find out you really are capable of doing things you’ve never tried before. And number three on your list has been helpful for me as well, especially when trying something new.

  3. says

    I’m preparing to start my first YA and everyone who knows me says that I would be great at it. I think that means I talk like a teenager, lol. One of the POVs in my current wip is a teenager and I will say, she’s the easiest for me to slip into.

    Great post!
    .-= Melanie´s last blog ..Kelly Meding’s Three Days to Dead =-.

  4. says

    I’m having a heck of a time making my YA MC’s voice not sound like a 30-something woman… One of my problems is that I didn’t talk like a teenager when I was one, so now it’s even harder for me.

    Someone recommended that I hang out somewhere and observe other teenagers to learn their speech patterns, but when I try I feel like a stalker and very, very old.

    Thanks for this post–it really does help!
    .-= Jennifer Bailey´s last blog ..Continuing Education =-.

  5. says

    Jennifer, try watching MTV shows to get a feel for contemporary teenage lingo. Stuff like The Hills. It helped me.

    My natural writer’s voice is probably closest in the horror novel. But I love the challenges of the different voices, it certainly keeps me on my toes!

  6. says

    I recently finished a medieval historical MS and have since started a Jazz-Age MS. Although both are historical, their voices are very different. My process for getting into a voice is usually similar to what you suggested (research and reading). I have found that, for the Jazz-Age MS, movies help me… well, movies made during that time period, anyway. Also, reading books that were written in the year I’m writing. So I re-read “The Sound & The Fury”, and “To the Lighthouse” (even though it was ’27), but skipped “Farewell to Arms”… just because.

    But to write the medieval historical, since there are so many historical romances out there, I just read several of those to get the feel for the cadence they created. And I also read “Pillars of the Earth”, which is not a romance. Interesting how different the voices of the historical romance were from the historical fiction.

    Anyway, great post! Thanks.

  7. says

    I haven’t strayed to far, but I think there is that difference between the ‘authorial’ voice and the ‘character’ voice. The latter is usually easier to manage; it’s getting the cadence, the flow, and the vocabulary to reflect the particular genre that takes a lot of work and practice.

    I can write a male homicide detective and a five-year-old child, but it’s still “me” writing. I go back and check the narrative portions, and try to keep everything in the appropriate POV for the scene, which would also translate to genre.

    There was a good post on this about a week ago at Murder She Writes, where Roxanne St. Claire quoted 3 passages that at first glance appeared to be written by 3 authors, but they were all pen names of the same writer.

  8. says

    Well stated for how this happens at the macro level, across multiple books and stories.

    Writers can sometimes exercise their ‘voice-switching muscles’ within the same story too. In my first novel manuscript, I used chapters and major scene changes to switch POVs across characters. Each time, the voice changed as well, and not just the dialog but exposition, inner thoughts, and tone. It almost felt to me like each character was taking center stage for their dose of the spotlight and I had to be faithful to who they were. In fact, I have a draft of that manuscript dotted with colored sticky notes to mark where a given character came on stage. That trick helped me review for voice consistency and balance across the whole story.

    So if you’re writing a story that spans multiple POVs and it’s appropriate to do so, try nudging your voice with the shifts.
    .-= Todd Thorne´s last blog ..Sale! "To Soar Free" to The Lorelei Signal =-.

  9. says

    Great tips, and something I’m struggling with now because I use two first person POVs in my new WIP and it’s really hard to distinguish them.

    One thing this made me think of (in particular your point #2) is an old Disney animation book I have that shows how initially a lot of Disney princesses end up looking like whoever the princess was right before them. Jasmine like Belle, Pocahontas like Jasmine, and so on. It’s interesting because it’s similar to our process, but you can really SEE it.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Working and waiting for dreams =-.

  10. Steve says

    My experience as a writer is small, so far, but I find it natural to *speak* in different “voices” (dialects, speech styles) depending on who I’m, talking to (or conversatin’ with). If I’m comfortable with a particular style I just naturally fall into it if I’m talking with somebody who uses it. (I think it’s probably a little like being bilingual.) And the writing voice I use on things like emails and blog comments is real context dependent. I tend to internalize an audience and just write in whatever style I imagine is appropriate to them.

    In my aspiring YA novel, I write in the first person voice of a 14-16 year old female (I am a 63 year old male). That’s been interesting, and quite fun.

    Years ago I spent some time playing Dungeons and Dragons. We were encouraged to game in the persona of our character, rather than as ourself. That gave me a basic familiarity with adopting a character other than myself. Then, when Yahoo was big, I did up some fake profiles (my favorite was anarchy_gurl_2004) and these were a lot of fun as well. But the line between fantasy and reality began to blur when I found real people becoming emotionally involved with the character I was portraying, so for ethical reasons I no longer pretend like that online.

    For me it’s just all about imagining myself as somebody other than my real self, and then thinking and writing as that person.


    P.S. My personal inclination is to take The Hills and its ilk with a grain of salt as a guide to teen culture and language. It’s probably a good guide to southern California, affluent/upscake media-centric teens – the “beautiful people”, and the “normal” teens who look to such stuff as a role model. But plenty of teens don’t. (I suspect punk, hardcore and alternative teens hate MTV almost as much as they hate Disney :)

    When I used to hang out with my friend’s teenagers and their friends, the thing that struck me is that they really are all individuals. I sort of agree that there is a “teen culture” of sorts, but it varies by region, social status, your music, and what clique you identify with (if any). And an individual teen may react against it as much as other teens identify with it. (And one of the themes of my novel will be to highlight that very fact).


  11. says

    When my wip is mostly complete, so that I’m happy with the overall story structure, themes, etc., I plan to read through each character’s scenes to watch for consistency of voice. To that end, I’ll follow only the heroine, for instance, from first chapter to last. Then I’ll repeat for the antagonist, and so on.