The Voice

Pair_of_Merops_apiaster_feedingThis month, I’ve been dipping my toes into the water of a brand-new project, taking the first steps on the looooong road that will eventually (I hope!) lead to a finished novel.  I actually love this part of the process.  Doing loads and loads of research reading, letting myself daydream as I read (or do dishes, or watch my six year old  practice handwriting), racing to my computer to type notes into my ‘ideas’ folder as they occur to me.  It’s a little like decorating a Christmas tree at this stage of the game.  Every day I unwrap a few shiny ornaments–a setting, a plot twist idea, a deeper understanding of the hero’s emotional baggage and journey– and tentatively decide where they might hang.  I don’t have a vision of the whole tree, not yet–I may not until the moment when all those shiny ornaments are unwrapped and hung and I type ‘the end’ at the close of my first draft.  But it will come.

One of those shiny ornaments that I haven’t quite gotten unwrapped (I swear I will give up on this metaphor before you’re all thoroughly sick of it!) yet is the narrator’s voice.  That will come, too, I know–it always does, when the time is right.  There are many guidelines–many very good– out there with tips on how to strengthen your narrative ‘voice’, but to be honest, I don’t typically use any of them when I’m writing or outlining.  For me, there’s an element of almost magic in uncovering a character’s unique voice and style of narration.  At some point in my reading and research, the main character’s voice simply starts sounding loud and clear in my head.  A lightening bolt strikes, and that’s the moment when I know I’m ready to start typing.

Which is great, but not especially predictable or helpful in terms of giving other authors advice on how to find their own voice.  I really enjoyed Lisa Cron’s post here last summer on the subject of ‘unmasking the muse’.  Essentially, Lisa suggested that the creative force that  drives our writing isn’t some external ‘muse’ beyond our control, that even when it seems a question of magical lightening bolts striking and bringing characters to life, it’s really our amazing subconscious minds at work.  So this time around, I thought I’d try to pay attention and delve into the process a little bit more.  Where exactly do these voices come from, these characters’ voices that we hear so loud and clear when we’re telling a story?  How do we make them striking and unique and ensure that they come alive on the page?

I thought about my own books, and thought about the opening lines of some novels that I think have the most striking, compelling voices.  Here are just a couple of the examples I pulled off my own shelves:

From Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart:

Lest anyone should suppose that I ame a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

From Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice:

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.

A lot of the writing guides I’ve looked at suggest that voice is the way characters’ express their unique opinions about the world–which it is, there’s no question.  Everyone has opinions, and your narrator should, too, if you want him to come to life in the readers’ imagination.  And it goes without saying that people have unique ways of speaking, unique word choices and diction patterns, and that’s a big part of crafting a compelling voice, as well.  But for me, at least, that’s not quite where voice comes from.  Or rather, I think your characters’ word choices and opinions–even her passionate loves and hates–are the outer layer: important, essential, even, no question, but for me not exactly the source.   I think what makes the most striking voices so striking is that the authors have truly, absolutely accessed the essential truth of who their characters believe themselves to be.

You as the author of course have your own opinions about your character, but what does she think about herself and who she is?  If you were to chose just one central truth about your character that he believes absolutely to be true about himself, what would it be?  We all have a deep, essential part of ourselves that we generally keep hidden from the rest of the world and reveal only to those we truly love and trust.  So what lies at the very deepest heart of your character’s hidden, essential self?  I think, for me, that’s where voice comes from; when I finally understand that one most important emotion or secret or experience that my narrator holds deepest and tightest, buried from the rest of the world–that’s when the lightening bolt strikes and I can clearly hear my character’s voice.  For one of my main characters, that truth was her lifelong struggle to overcome her shyness, her deep-rooted belief that she wasn’t very strong–even though I, as the author, knew she was.  For another, it was the guilt my main character felt over past mistakes–again, even though I knew she wasn’t as culpable as she felt herself to be.

I’m not quite sure yet what I’ll discover in my new narrator’s most hidden part of her heart, but I can’t wait to find out.

What about you?  How do you access your characters’ voices?  What do you think makes a voice unique or compelling to read?


About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.


  1. Carmel says

    That thing the character believes about herself that affects her whole life and yet isn’t working for her — I never thought about this driving her voice. Definitely something to ponder. I always enjoy your posts, Anna.

  2. says

    Awesome post! So many good things to consider as I embark on constructing the framework for my next project. The thing is: I always assume a character is going to jump into my head, voice intact, and I get impatient when something about the flow of the story stalls. I am slowly learning that unearthing that voice actually does take some time, and play and archaeo-psychological digging and that’s OKAY.

    I know the character is coming fully into his or her own when multiple layers are visible, when i can identify what is facade, what is internal cogitation or visceral emotion. The moment I forget that a character isn’t actually in the room with me is the moment he or she is fully conscious, fully alive and fully driving the story. I strive for those moments!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..Doff

  3. Lisa Threadgill says

    Wonderful post, thank you. I don’t know where the voices come from (and when I was about ten I learned that it wasn’t wise to tell everyone that I heard them), all I know is that they show up, full-blown in my head.

    Couldn’t agree with you more about Jacqueline Carey. Kushiel’s Dart is hands-down the most gorgeous first-person book I have ever read, and one of the most gorgeous books in general that I have ever read.

  4. says

    Thank you, The Voice post gave me a kick start this morning. I have been struggling with my latest WIP, unable to pin down my main character. This has never been a problem before, characters seem to appear in full flight without help from me, so I was feeling as if my muse had gone walk-about. I think I was trying too hard, worrying like a a dog at a bone. So, I’m going to try and relax and let my character mess about in my head and claim her own space.
    Mary Curtis´s last blog post ..BLOG

  5. Denise Willson says

    Wonderful, Anna. You have one of the most distinctive voices I’ve read, and this is just derived from your posts. Kudos.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  6. says

    I love this, it’s so true. Honesty within our characters gives them depth and a lot of times, helps us avoid the passive voice. I think it’s important too, to talk about dialogue when it comes to voice. So many times I’ve been reading a piece I love until I get to the dialogue. I think it’s important that we make sure we’re listening to the outer voices of our characters as well.

  7. says

    Good observations, Anna. I’ve come to see that it’s the deeply held inner truths that best shape voice as well. And it’s even more important when you have multiple POVs to find those central defining truths for each of them. And I’m with you and Lisa regarding Jacqueline Carey’s skill with voice. That first line for Dart just knocked my socks off. Good luck with your new project!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Destiny Calling

  8. Ni says

    This was lovely….It made me consider my main in a way I haven’t thought about him before. That’s big, because I find my characters’ voices by looking at them from every aspect possible. I try to put them in different situations, make them do the things I’m doing, and see where it goes from there. A lot of times they surprise me–they’ll vehemently dislike something, or laugh at an off-joke, and I can’t convince myself they’d act any other way despite all the reasoning I can do. But questioning what he believes is entirely different from deciding what he believes, and it makes it a lot easier to find him. Thank you!

  9. says

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s very true, although I’d never thought to question where the character’s deepest truth was before. I’ll have to put this to use. =)

  10. says

    okay, i totally loved the Christmas tree metaphor!! i’m reimagining a project for a dramatically different second draft, and i’ve felt so overwhelmed by all the, um, ornaments and lights and tinsel that i’ve unwrapped. i love that metaphor, and how it helps me rethink what i’m doing… it’s going to be a beautiful tree when it’s all done, and yours will be too!!

    i think you’re right about where voice comes from: that core essence of the character’s opinion of herself. so true. it’s one of the most powerful elements of a story, carrying us through even if the pace of the story quiets for a while.

    i just love getting inside a fascinating character for a while. :)

    thanks for your inspiring post!!
    Lucy Flint´s last blog post ..the lucy flint promises

  11. says

    Thank you for this interesting article. It inspired me to continue to work on my W.I.P. In fact, I had to stop reading to write a scene. But I quickly returned to read more.
    How does the character internalize the world? What are their thoughts; core believes; secrets and what stories do they tell themselves? These are questions that guide me as I develop my character voice.
    I call this deep writing. Authors such as Lisa Moore are masters of this type writing.
    Leanne Dyck´s last blog post ..Please welcome Author Micki Peluso

  12. says

    I’ve had an easy time lately finding my character’s voice. The hard part for me lately is, after I’ve done that, I can’t decide if it should stay in that first person voice–which is so limiting, if the character (in this case, first person detective noir) is a compelling character in his own right, and not just a reader stand-in figure–or switch it to third person. I’m currently changing the whole ms. to third person, which has been a thrilling and yet excruciating experience that leaves me at the end of the day with immense doubt that I’m doing the right thing.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

  13. says

    Anna, what a lovely reminder of how much fun the brainstorming and research phase of a new story or book can be. You’ve told me something completely new and illuminating here–that a character’s voice comes out of her essential core. What’s really there? For the characters of mine who have really sprung to life, I’ve come to understand that essential core without articulating it like that, but looking back, I see now that I “got” the very deepest heart of that character’s hidden, essential self, as you said.

    Other characters in other stories haven’t sprung to life . . . yet. I often put a character and her dilemma and world into the back of my mind, hoping for the day when she’ll stand up and tell me what’s really at her center, what really makes her tick and I’ll start to hear her voice.