Defining Character Voice

I don’t know about you guys, but one of the most important aspects of a work of writing for me is voice. It’s a rather broad subject, however, so rather than slam you with one hugely enormous blog post; I’ve split it into four posts: 

Today: defining character voice

Monday (a week from today): unleashing your voice

So! Here we go!

Because voice is one of those more difficult things to define, I cheated and used the internet to get a better definition than what I could give you. So from, here is the definition of voice:

In case you can't read it (I'm aware the picture's a little small, sorry), the definition I'd like to focus on is: 

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. 

I write in first-person a lot. It’s not that I have a problem with third-person (I really don’t, third-person POV is great), what appeals to me is that first person emphasizes character voice—something I treasure in novels. Despite that though, I’d like to revise the definition:

Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a narrator; a persona.

See what I did there? My problem with the definition is that it insinuates that character voice only emerges in first-person POV novels, which is certainly not the case. You see, first-person draws attention to voice and uses it to string together the story, but that’s not to say that third-person POV novels are void of character voice. The difference is in the manner character voice is expressed.

In first-person POV, character voice emerges organically. It’s the way words are strung together, what the character focuses on and his opinions and beliefs revealed through his thoughts, biases and desires.

A great example is the opening of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about, but in case you’ve missed it, here it is from

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

I don’t need to give you an entire paragraph so you can get a feel for Holden’s voice—one sentence is all it takes. That’s the power of character voice. You should be able to take one sentence from your first-person novel—any sentence—and give the readers a good sense of character voice.  

Third-person is much the same, although it varies depending on how close to the character we are—omniscient POV, for example, will have a higher degree of author voice than limited third-person. Nonetheless, character voice is usually sprinkled in throughout the prose.

Here’s a great example from Showdown by Ted Dekker:

“Cecil Marshal shifted his seat on the town’s only public bench, shaded from the hot midsummer sun by the town’s only drinking establishment, and measured the stranger strutting along the road’s shoulder like some kind of black-caped superhero. It wasn’t just the man’s black broad-brimmed hat, or his dark trench coat whipped about by a warm afternoon breeze, but the way he carried himself that made Cecil think, Jiminy Cricket, Zorro’s a-coming.” (pg. 1)

I highlighted the two sections in that paragraph that really emphasize Cecil’s voice. Obviously his thought beginning with “Jiminy Cricket” comes directly from his mind and thus is 100% his voice, but the comparison of the stranger to a “black-caped superhero” also reflects voice—after all, would the stranger define himself as a black-caped superhero? How about someone else who saw him? Maybe, maybe not, but this is Cecil’s interpretation of the stranger.  

I can’t emphasize enough how important voice is in a novel—to me at least, it makes or breaks the prose. But maybe I’m just picky.

What do you think? How important is voice?


Robin Red said...

I think I've gotten good at author's voice in third-person omniscient. It makes it easy for a reader to identify the omnipresent narrator from the implied thoughts of a character, or from what I, the persona, am saying as opposed to how a character perceives something. I'm Ark Angel by the way, Ava :)

Ava Jae said...

I've actually never written in third person omniscient (at least, not in recent memory), so I think it's pretty great that you've found your niche there. And very nice to meet you, Robin Red/Ark Angel. :)

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