Do You Hear Voices?
Do You Hear Voices?
I confess that I do. All the time. I’m a type known as an “audio” instead
of a “visual”, which means that I think in words as opposed to pictures. My
thoughts are expressed in my brain, usually aloud (well, internally aloud).
Most often these thoughts are expressed in my own voice, but when I’ve been
listening to another person with a strong, interesting, distinctive voice,
that voice will sometimes take over as the position as narrator in my head.
This can be irritating, especially when the voice is speaking imperfect
English (I spend plenty of time with people who don’t have English as their
first language). Sometimes it’s simply annoying, because I feel as if this
other personality is dominating mine and I don’t want it to. (The thoughts
are still my own; they’re simply expressed differently.) On the other hand,
for my writing, this “hearing of voices” has advantages. Dialogue and
internal thoughts come far more easily. I can also hear the rest of
the language for my story – and as writing is written in words, this is very
But voice in literature implies a great deal more than just hearing
voices, although hearing voices may help you establish a literary voice.
What, exactly, is a literary voice?
First of all, let me say that Voice is not Person.
Person refers to how the story is told, such as first, second or various
degrees of third. (If you want to read more on it, you can check the
archives for August, “What Are They Thinking?”) How you go about creating a
voice is strongly influenced by the person in which you write, but Voice and
Person are different.
So, we know a little about what Voice is not. What is it? As
there’s little merit in re-inventing definitions, here are a few already put
together by others:
Voice refers to the controlling presence or "authorial voice"
behind the characters, narrators, and personae of literature. It is also
described as the implied author. The particular qualities of the author's
voice are manifested by her or his method of expression (an ironic narrator,
a lyric persona), specific language, and so forth. (This can be found at a
site maintained by the
University of Victoria in Canada.
Definition: Voice has two meanings as it concerns creative
• Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her
writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and
• Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a
first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with
the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most
important elements of a piece of writing. This comes from
I would extend this definition to consider also applying the term
Voice to characters, even when you’re not writing in first person. A
well-developed character can also have a voice. Even though this may not
meet the technical, far-reaching definitions that we’ve seen above, many of
the techniques that apply to developing your voice as a narrator can also be
applied to developing the voices and personalities and styles of your
Voice is an elusive quality, almost as difficult to define as
style is in fashion. It should become clearer if you see (hear) it. So here
are some examples:
Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age
“Their costumes, as to architecture, were the latest fashion intensified;
they were rainbow-hued; they were hung with jewels--chiefly diamonds. It
would have been plain to any eye that it had cost something to upholster
When I read these sentences, I can hear the voice of Mark Twain (aka
Samuel Clemens): his ironic American twang, the not-so-cultured yet very
intelligent drawl. The echoes in my brain are partly due to the fact that
I’ve seen Samuel Clemens portrayed in various shows – both on the stage and
on television – but they are also due to his unique style.
Amy Tan, in The Kitchen God’s Wife
“She was referring to the old beggar shoe-mender who walked from door to
door, whose breath and body smelled as bad as the old shoes he fixed and
tried to sell. I think all the mothers in our village threatened to marry
their daughters to Old Shoe Stink. And those daughters must have obeyed.
Otherwise, Old Shoe Stink would have had twenty wives!”
Can’t you hear the accents of the immigrant Chinese woman, who has
learned English but whose thoughts and perspective are still colored by her
Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
“It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the
middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It
looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think
they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep.
The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.”
Haddon is writing a first-person novel in which the narrator is an
autistic boy. The autism may not be so clear in the sentences given above,
but I believe the fact that the narrator is a boy comes through loud and
How It’s Done
All right, so we’ve gone through a few examples. But how is it done?
These three are different in origin. Mark Twain’s voice is almost
certainly his own; that is, the same voice, albeit with some variation, can
be found in the vast majority of his literature. With respect to Amy Tan,
she spent a lot of time with people who emigrated from China and have
English as their second language. So although the voice may not be exactly
her own – there are many passages in her books that are not written in this
particular dialect – it is certainly something she knows well. So she has to
listen carefully and use the voice that she has heard so often. As for Mark
Haddon, he has a lot of experience writing for children, if not portraying
But let’s take a look at some of the details and how they make these
Mark Twain uses the word “upholstered” to refer to women’s dress. As the
word is usually applied to furniture, his use of this word is just a bit
derogatory, as well as delightfully descriptive.
Amy Tan’s character uses the word “beggar” and “village”. Now,
although these words are common enough in that everyone understands them,
they are not used so often, at least not in the United States. “Homeless” is
more frequently applied than “beggar”; “town” or “small town” are things we
hear instead of “village”. The word “village,” at least in the US, refers to
a particular section of New York City.
Mark Haddon deliberately writes “7” instead of “seven.” Both the
autism (obsession with numerical accuracy) and the youth of the narrator
(the narrator might not realize that lower numerals are usually written out
in prose) make this approach logical.
Mark Twain’s “the latest fashion intensified” is not a phrase most
writers would use, but I can hear his voice uttering it.
Amy Tan’s “Old Shoe Stink” conveys a voice (and a smell) that
makes one think of a different place and time.
Mark Heddon: “the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a
cat in a dream” – this is a lovely detail, showing the remarkable
observational quality of the narrator.
Mark Twain: longer than one sees today, partly because he wrote in
the nineteenth century, when longer sentences were more common.
Amy Tan: Chinese-immigrant dialect – often there are no articles.
Mark Haddon’s narrator: He uses a simple structure befitting a
What they write about:
Mark Twain: often mocks the values that people took for granted, such
as dressing well. The morsel, “mostly diamonds” is choice because diamonds
are often generally accepted as the most expensive gem.
Amy Tan: the relationship between mothers and daughters – a strong
theme in her book (and in many of her books). Also, in the Western world, we
have not so many instances of beggars going from house to house, even those
Mark Haddon’s character: very matter-of-fact, exactly what he
sees. In addition, he chooses to write about the murder of a dog, something
which adults might not consider worth their time.
The combination of word choice, phrase creation, sentence structure and
what they write about somehow create a whole that is greater than the sum of
its parts – the Voice.
How to Improve Your Voice(s)
Get to know your narrators and your characters. You need to have a
perspective to portray; you should have something to say. This should
influence the vocabulary you choose, how you put your phrases and sentences
together, and naturally, what you write about. If you are just trying to be
yourself, ask yourself if you have a particular attitude that you want to
become clear through your writing.
Listen to people speaking, particularly those you want to represent.
This may not be possible, as your characters may not be alive – for example
many of my stories are set in Bronze Age Greece, and it’s not so easy to
resurrect people from that time period. On the other hand, I can read works
that are closer to that time period – for example, Homer’s The Iliad,
and adapt the language for my own uses. So if you’re writing for children,
you should listen to children. Not only should you listen to what they
actually say, you should try to discover what they like to say (fun words,
for example, beginning with crazy letters like z, or q, or
b as well as nonsensical rhymes, such as “cuddly-wuddly” and “Humpty-Dumpty”).
Listen to Audio Books. One of the advantages of this method is
that you can slow it down and ponder particular passages. In conversations,
especially when you are expected to give an answer to something, you can’t
always take time to attend to the finer details.
When you’re ready, read your writing aloud. This is a good
exercise for plenty of other reasons – for example it can help you catch
mistakes – but it will also help you hear the voice that you have developed.
If you can bear it, have someone else read your writing aloud. I
suggest you don’t try this until you’ve read it aloud yourself. However, you
can pick up a lot this way, and you can certainly listen with greater
concentration. Hint: this works best if you find someone who is good at
reading aloud, someone who likes reading aloud. Check out your local drama
groups for resources.
Read other voices. It never hurts to see how other writers manage
the challenge of creating voices. Here are some pieces you might read:
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, with
the story told by Celie, the poor, abused girl who is so uneducated at the
beginning that there seems no hope for her. Written in the form of letters,
we get the chance to see a world unfamiliar to many.
The Catbird Seat, by James Thurber. This
enchanting little story has one character (Mr. Martin) being tormented by
the intrusion by the actions and the voice of another character (Mrs. Ulgine
Barrows), and tells what Mr. Martin does to liberate himself.
Just-So Stories, by Rudard Kipling.
Although some of his stories might be deemed politically incorrect for
today’s audience, the narrator’s voice – basically a father telling bedtime
stories to his young daughter – has a powerful magic to it.
Again, consider reading these aloud, so that you hear the rhythm of the
Thanks for joining me in this column, which has gone way over the usual
word limit. But voice is a difficult topic, necessitating a few extra words.
I hope the concepts offered here help you to develop your own!
If you have questions or comments, you can contact me at
Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.
Until next time!
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