Tag Archives: voicing

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead,  one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey.  If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

Git Er Dun: Using the Vernacular

One potentially powerful and useful tool to have in your toolbox is the ability to write in a certain vernacular that makes your characters memorable. Stylistic voicing has been successfully used by some great authors. Let’s take a look at those, and why they were successful.


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

One of the most memorable characters I can think of is Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is a staple for coming-of-age readers. It’s my favorite book, in fact. Why? Why did this book resonate with me so much? No, it’s not because I’m

Well, are you?

a sociopath, as many critical readers think of Holden. I loved the book because it was real.

We understand that this is the first time Holden has ever truly spoken his mind, consequences be damned. And we get a front row seat! His raw vernacular often includes calling people “phonies” and using “goddamn” as a consistent adjective. This usage of stylistic voicing achieved a certain authenticity. Whether Holden was right or wrong about the other characters being phonies, we never question for a minute that Holden is completely convinced that they are.


Room by Emma Donoghue

The book Room is told by a 5-year-old boy, Jack, whose main education is the television. Why? Because he is a captive, along with his mother, locked in a shed for years. Jack’s stylistic voicing is so convincing, so well constructed, that the reader is completely enveloped into Jack’s world, where he has only known the Room. He has never been outside. He hasn’t received any sort of education, apart from the one his mother tries to give him, which makes his sentence construction short and plain. He only describes what he sees, not knowing exactly what certain things mean. But you, the reader, know exactly what it means. And it makes your stomach churn and your heart ache.

You may want to pick up Room to see an excellent example of emotional transport with a stylistic narrative voice. It should also be noted that some readers simply could not get past the stylistic voicing. That is one of the risks you take when choosing a stylistic narration, but the rewards can be BIG. Room won Emma Donoghue over ten prestigious awards for her effort and risk.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Perhaps the most well-known example of using stylistic voice is Huck Finn. It was, in fact, the very first novel published to use American vernacular, or more specifically, regional dialect (an example:“Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.”). Huck is described as a pariah, son of the town drunk, and the other children wish they dared to be like him.  That’s one hellova introduction. If Samuel Clemens decided to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in third person, I venture to say everyone would hate Huck.  A bratty little kid, running around causing havoc. What Twain did so brilliantly was deciding to tell the story from Huck’s perspective, showing us the charm and charisma Huck has to offer, so we can’t help but love the little shit. Using stylistic voicing, Twain made us relate to an otherwise potentially annoying character.


You may have noticed that I chose all first-person novels, as well as young narrators. Can you think of any examples of stylistic voice using adults, told in third person? Was it as effective as a first-person stylistic voice?

If you’re on the edge about whether or not to write a character’s unique voicing, take heart. Mark Twain had never seen it before, but did it anyway. Emma Donoghue received some unkind reviews of Room because of her style choice, and probably cries about it in front of her wall full of awards. Just kidding. She doesn’t. And Holden Caulfield wouldn’t be one of the most notorious voices in literature if Salinger hadn’t let him. Tell your character’s story in the most authentic way possible, even if that includes letting him or her speak for him/herself.