A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want – and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. ~ Browne & King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
But blimey, they try. Chapter after chapter of craft books are devoted to the subject of ‘voice’. It’s an ephemeral prize, and all the talking tends to muddy the water. “What is voice in writing?” I hear you (metaphorically) cry. “Do you mean my voice or the characters’?”
Character. In the vast majority of modern writing, most books are told either from first person or from close third person perspective. So the voice you’re writing in is usually intimately linked to the voice of the narrator-character.
‘Voice’ is what clues the reader into the atmosphere of the story. Word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure all offer clues as to the time period, culture, type of characters, type of setting, etc. You aren’t writing in your voice, you’re writing the voice of the story, and each story should have its own. As mentioned above, the fashion in modern story-telling is for 1POV or close 3POV, so the story is seen through the eyes of a primary character. The voice is therefore also a vital clue into the nature and background of that character. The story is essentially told in their voice.
It’s important to remember that, whilst the reader is getting everything filtered through their perspective, the dialogue of the other characters shouldn’t sound the same. Each character should have their own voice – it’s simply that one is dominant in telling the tale.
If you’re writing in omniscient POV (you brave soul), you obviously don’t have a particular character to use as a primary voice. But you’re still trying to convey a particular atmosphere, genre, culture, etc. In this case, you use the character of the story itself. I’m not going to use the same styles in a sci fi romp about space pirates, and an Elizabethan romance, right? The characteristics of the setting become the character of the story, and give you it’s voice.
Put like that, it sounds like the whole subject has nothing to do with authorial voice – it’s all character, right? Well, kind of. You certainly shouldn’t try to clinically work out what your personal authorial voice sounds like, and then apply it to stories. That way lies shoe-horning and stilted prose. But as you build up your portfolio, certain stylistic points will inevitably become common because – as much as you put yourself into your characters’ heads – you’re still the person holding the pen/keyboard/dictaphone/personal monkey-scribe. Your go-to vocabulary and stylistic choices will form a pattern. Which is totally cool and awesome, and what fans will love without realising it. But don’t go looking for it.
Types of Voice
Hardy Griffin wrote a great essay called Voice: The Sound of a Story, in a book published by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I recommend getting your hands on a copy, and not just because it was published by a group called Gotham. In it, Griffin lists a number of different types of voice. It’s not an exhaustive list but it is quite a good starting point, if you’re looking for stylistic ideas.
- Conversational: the narrator sounds like they’re having a casual chat. Almost always 1POV, heavy on the stream-of-consciousness type of inner monologue.
- Informal: still pretty casual, but less heavy on the colloquialisms. Fully formed, grammatically correct sentences. This is the most commonly used style in contemporary fiction.
- Formal: less intimate, with a grander range in vocabulary. Generally more detached from extreme emotions being experienced by the characters. This can work in 1POV (e.g. The Great Gatsby) but it’s more common to see it in 3POV or omniscient.
- Ceremonial: high language, high style. Think public speaking, but in book form. Very detached from emotion, and often quite poetic. Dickens used ceremonial voice. It’s way less common now.
I’ve tried to keep this pretty basic, because over-complication keeps getting in the way of the topic. I hope that helped.
TL;DR – basically, write each book in the language and style of your narrator/protagonist. It’s that simple.