Your Authentic Voice

One of the things I used to strain about a lot was “authentic voice.”

No, I’m not talking about the mentally challenged idea you can only write the cultural background you come from, which is akin to the idea you can only wear Halloween costumes that match your external appearance.  (I have a guest post about this on my blog today.) Why mentally challenged?  Because it’s a confusion of genes and culture.  Sure, they can be and often are coincidental due to the fact most countries in the world are tribal.  But anyone who has immigrated and acculturated, and well… practically anyone in America, should be aware that just because they’re often covalent it doesn’t mean they’re the same. The idea they’re the same is actually incredibly racist and fuel for eugenics.  So I’m not at home to that particular form of mentally challenged confusion.  Fortunately by the time I found it in SF/F (with editors assuring me that I could only write “authentic” stories set in Portugal, a country where I only lived as a kid and pre-married young adult, which has changed wildly in the then 20 now 34 years I’ve been away, and where, btw, my upbringing was never typical, to the point of getting culture shock when staying overnight at friends’ houses) I was multi-published and could only snort derisively.)

What I’m talking about, which some of my mentors obsessed about was the idea that there is a voice that’s uniquely you and that when you find it, your work becomes markedly better.

Before we embark on this, let me say that, yes, voice is important.  And that when you’re faking a voice that you can’t write convincingly, it can destroy the readers’ pleasure in the story.  Partly because it keeps popping you out.

I experienced this very intensely this week while reading — and partly while listening to — Pride and Prejudice Variations.  Look, they’re basically Pride and Prejudice fanfic. It’s now all for sale on Amazon.

It’s technically impossible for me to not read or listen to stories while doing physical work.  It’s an addiction.  Don’t mock me.  But when I’m strained and busy to my last nerve, I listen to and read low-level no-intellectual-demands stuff.  P & P fanfic is kind of the lowest of that (It’s been a month of construction work.  I’m exhausted.  Yes, very little remains except for stuff that can be done two weekends a month, which counts as a hobby.  Hopefully done this week with the rest) It’s emotionally undemanding, because we KNOW they’ll end up together.  It’s intellectually undemanding because it’s variations on a theme.  I don’t mind the occasional anachronism, because I view it as fanfic.  So…

So what kicks me out is that the authors are straining to write at a more formal level than most of them probably ever heard, let alone spoke or read.  Which means we end up with things like abdicate for abandon.  Or audio books that seem to think English upper class accents are music-hall Irish-servant-girl accents.  Never mind. Then there’s the people who never even waved at England across the straight and who try to write historical servant dialect and make them sound like Jar Jar Binks.

These are examples of voices (either on paper or in speech) that can mar a story.

And it’s not limited to fanfic. It’s more subtle in original fiction, but you know exactly what I mean if I tell you to think of times you were reading a book and kept picturing the character as another sex, or race, of even time of origin.  How many regency romances have heroines that sound like valley girls, for instance?

I refer to this as “watching the costume play.”  If my mind keeps defaulting to kids in front of painted scenery, the voice is wrong.

The worst one, though, was the book that is supposedly in the voice of a tall straight male, and I kept seeing him either as a small girl, or a small, very gay male.  I went back when I gave up and studied all the instances where the author had given that impression.  Apparently this author is incapable of understanding that tall, strong men don’t “rush into the arms” of their lovers for protection, don’t mince around corners for fear of what’s on the other side, etc. etc. etc.  She was clearly in her own body, and incapable of projecting someone else.

So, there is such a thing as an authentic voice.  BUT is it YOUR authentic voice?

… I don’t think I have one.  I mean, I know there are word choices and paragraphing choices that are unique to me, and some linguistically gifted people are really good at catching me everywhere.

BUT my voice seems to change according to character and genre.  I’ll confess the hard part of any book or series is to get in the character’s voice. and when I return to a series after a long hiatus, I often have to listen to my own audio books, before I can write in that voice again.  Since I have Shakespeare (the last two books. It was supposed to be a 5 book series, and I’d like to close it off, as it were) on the slate for next year, we’ll see how far my ability to do that goes.  I put it down 15 years and 35 books ago.)

There absolutely is an “authentic” voice for genre and book.  And you can feel when you’re in the groove, because at least for me, I stop thinking about word or phrasing choice or even what kind of reaction the character would have, and just “flow” in the character’s head.

But is there an authentic voice for ME?  I don’t think so.

I think if you’re doing it right, particularly first person (which is my preferred writing mode) you just become the character.

Maybe it’s the same as method and character actors.  Maybe some people become the characters, and some people stay outside them narrating them.  And maybe the process differs depending on what kind of writer/actor you are.  Art (to the extent writing is art) is very personal, and a thing that comes from your whole being AS YOU ARE, not as you try to be.

So, take it with a grain of salt. Stop looking for your authentic voice like it’s some kind of holy grail.

Instead, try to get in the voice for the character and book.

If you’re like me, listening to books you like in the genre you’re going to write will help you slide in.

Also, try not to write in a vocabulary you’re not familiar or comfortable with.  Honestly, a regency written in more pedestrian English, but without a bunch of false-friends is better than one where I’m stopping every five minutes and going “it’s renege, not retrieve on a promise! Dear Lord, buy a dictionary!”  Trying to sound “old timey” and “classy” always ends in tears.  (Also for the love of heaven if writing in the regency do buy What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew, or “daily life in” for as many historical periods as you can or… well, get a clue. In the regency they did NOT write on parchment.  Paper has been common and relatively affordable since Elizabethan times at least.  Geeesh.)

But most of all?  David Weber once said, in a panel, that confidence in your voice covers a multitude of sins.  He’s right.  Readers sense how confident the narrator is.  A confident narrator can sell shoes to snakes, or swamp water to Florida.

If you’re sure you know the way, the reader will follow you anywhere and not notice even glaring plot issues till he/she closes the book.  Or all the books in the series.

So, take a deep breath, square your shoulders and be confident.

Authorial confidence is what you need, not the mystical holy grail of authenticity.


56 thoughts on “Your Authentic Voice

  1. *adjusts historian’s hat* One of the things that throws me out of a historical fiction book or even some alt-history and historical fantasies is when the author so obviously has not even bothered to go to Wiki for an overall history of the period, place, or characters involved. For example, Henry VIII did not take the throne after the death of his father, Edward II. No, it was not alt-history, the novelist really moved Henry a hundred years or so. And then it got worse. I didn’t make it through the first chapter, and returned the book to the library that afternoon, lest it afflict the rest of my books.

      1. *raises right paw* My hand to Bog, Edward II. I read far enough to realize that this was not a time-travel sci-fi novel, found a few more not-as-glaring errors that even I caught, and took the book back. Good thing I lived three blocks from the library at the time.

        1. Now, I’m not up on my kings of England… but dang. That’s as simple as “Kings of England, Search Engine FETCH!” First link on “Kings of England timeline” which is the first suggestion from Google, gives a list that goes all the way back to Egbert. DuckDuck Go gives Wikipedia’s list first Which starts with Alfred the Great, and the second link is one that starts with Offa in 757. 2 seconds… *goes and mutters in a corner*

    1. But… that’s the kind of thing tradpub protects us from, right? Those editors and fact-checkers and proofreaders who add value to the author’s manuscript make catch that sort of problem so errors never makes it to the end purchaser.

      Right? Beuller?

    2. That’s dumbfounding. How could you miss something like that if you did any research whatsoever?

      1. She probably watched an old Hollywood movie that said that. Not joking. I once had someone “copy-edit” a musketeer’s book according to a SILENT film from the 1920s

  2. “Trying to sound “old timey” and “classy” always ends in tears.”

    I was watching Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale a while back (yes, I know) and one of the characters loudly declares when another character offers no quarter: “We too shall offer no quarters!”

    Bust a gut, I did.

    1. On the other hand, given the doof of a character who said it (which may be insulting Doofs), it’s a plausible CHARACTER mistake.

      1. Those are rough to manage. I had a story where I had a character switch his Thees and Thous in his ritual because he was an idiot… and wound up with the primary comment that I mixed up my Thees and Thous. X_X

          1. The movie is so bad it’s hard to say if it was scripted like that, or if the actor blew the line and nobody cared.

            1. Eh, I’m weird. I actually enjoyed it. Then again I went in expecting low end popcorn flick.

              Deliberate or accidental, It was believable that that character would screw up that line. He’d screwed up everything else that he tried to do himself.

    2. Was that Name of the King the one with Jason Statham? Did you get the feeling that they’d left half of it out? I did. Strongly. I really liked it, though, but it had *holes* in the narrative arc that ruined the timing. Granted it was already long, but the holes in development made me twitchy. (Yes, the plot was explained, I’m not talking about that.)

      1. It did have a bit of a feel like it had been originally intended as a mini-series or single season TV show. And had to crop things (Like the girl’s arc.)

  3. I don’t think you mean covalent (that’s a chemistry term referring to the relatively weak bond between nonmetals). You might mean equivalent, which would refer to two concepts that are fairly interchangeable.

  4. Yeah. Characters’ voices. I’ve got a couple I worry about sounding too similar. Fortunately most of them are complete jerks–all in different ways–and I just have to get inside their heads and let go.

  5. I think it is a little like being a character actor, actually, or being able to mimic accents. For me, I can “load up” on a particular author, or a historical style and then mimic that style for pages and pages. I was ever so flattered when several reviewers (and one of my alpha readers!) of my first historical novel assumed that I was quoting authentic 19th century letters, and an emigrant diary of the same period. No, I had merely written those letters and the diary entries after absorbing enough of the real thing to be able to mimic them convincingly.

    1. That’s praise indeed! Getting it right to that extent is like having perfect pitch.

      I love submerging myself in voices of a different time and letting them tell the story from their perspective. Hmm, haven’t been doing that with the current series which are both contemporary fantasy…. I wonder what a dragon’s ‘authentic voice’ would sound like.

      1. Bass. Although the dragon on the BBC _Merlin_ series was pretty sincere, and he was a low tenor-baritone, if memory serves.

      2. Have absorbed too many books to know where one voice starts and another ends. Whatever I write will look like imitation to someone.

    2. Yes! Read old stuff!

      For high fantasy, I really recommend reading widely back to about Jane Austen. Or even Shakespeare. I note that if you start modern and work your way back, you will pick up the vocabulary on the way. The advantage is not that you can write forsoothly. It’s that you can avoid writing entirely modern.

      1. On “writing forsoothly”—oh my. A number of years back, some Doctor Who group posted a challenge to re-write some of the speeches in Shakespearean style. It was predictably horrible, with people adding -eth to words and mixing up the grammar and everything. So after wincing a bit, I took one of the Crowning Moment of Awesome speeches and put it into proper iambic pentameter and everything. And then didn’t save a copy for myself, dammit.

        *muttering* it’s modern English, people, just the slang is different…

  6. Another one that I’ve seen a lot of people have trouble with (and… I’m sure I will too, when I try) is writing dialogue for children or, worse, from a child’s perspective. There’s a lot of ways that goes wrong, but I think my least favorite is the “use over-simple language, completely misunderstand everything in ways that don’t even make sense, until it’s time to Spout Unexpected Wisdom in bad grammar.”

    And it feels ridiculous typing it like that, because kids can do all of that… but it all seems like it comes from the same common spring when real people do it (for instance, “misunderstanding instructions in ridiculous ways on purpose to get your goat because they’re bored and it amuses them”), and it just feels like Insert Trait Here when it’s done badly. blarg.

    1. I worry about using words that are too sophisticated for the character. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always liked big words. As a consequence, I became comfortable with some of them and when talking to people they sometimes just pop out. I’ve already caught a few of them pop up when writing dialog and I have to ask myself, “Would this character even know that word?”

      1. Join your tears with mine. I learned English in a classroom for six years before I ever heard it in the wild.
        One of my big fights is getting rid of slightly stilted word choices.

    2. I grew up with the SUPERBABY comics in the brick of the old SUPERBOY books. There I learned that toddlers cannot manage subject-object distinctions. Every child below the age of two uses movie-Indian grammar–” Me going to the store today!”.


  7. >very gay male

    A few years ago I listened to one of those “techno-adventure” genre audiobooks. The author hadn’t bothered to make even a cursory seach for information on things his characters were explaining to each other, which varied between WTF? and ROFL.

    But… the narrator was one of the mumblers. *How* these people get audiobook gigs is a mystery to me. But the main character, who was mentioned by name quite often… from context, it might have been something Italianate like “Fugazzi.” But the narrator managed to mangle it to “Goatse” every. single. time.

  8. Sarah, about not having an authentic voice: Could it be that you just can’t see it? That’s something that Kris and Dean mention a lot, that writers can’t see their own voice. Just wondering.

  9. I’ve just started ‘re-reading’ (re-listening) the Patrick Tull narrations of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin historical novels.
    It’s my second time, and every bit as enjoyable as the first. I particularly appreciate his painstaking atttention to detail. When he describes a night scene on the ocean, with the Pleiades rising and Saturn high in the South, I believe I could fire up my planetarium program and determine the exact longitude, latitude, date, and time of the scene.
    Yet all of that fades into the background because the story is the thing.

  10. One major influence on voice is a character’s profession,and I think a lot of authors don’t pay enough attention to that.The details that a character notices and relates will be different depending on how that character makes a living.

    A narrator who is a cab driver will describe a city street differently than a narrator who is an office worker. I’ve put down a number of books because a main character is supposed to be a construction worker or an exotic dancer, but has the internal monologue of an adjunct faculty professor of English.

    I remember reading once (I believe that it was in Robert Anson Wilson’s “Masks Of The Illuminati”) that two different people walking into a room are really walking into two different rooms. What I see (and what I would describe in telling a story) looking at a room is going to shaped by my spending most of my life in maintenance. An interior decorator would describe a completely different space, because she would notice completely different details.

    Most of us spend a lot more time making a living than we do engaged in family or social activities. We tend to think of ourselves in terms of what we do to put food on the table. Getting the professional voice of a character right is consequently more important, in my opinion, than writing them with a particular social or ethnic viewpoint.

    1. Well thought out and very nicely put.

      We prefer using some words over others because of how our perceptions shape our thinking.

      But aspects of perception are a trainable skill.

      You work in some professions, and you train in the skill of the pattern matching to read a blue print. Others, to read a specific type of scientific journal article. Others really develop the ability to read body language, or to figure out when someone is out of their head, or needs help.

      Misperception can also be learned.

    2. Agatha Christie wrote a book possibly called Cards on the Table where Poirot works on a mystery by getting each suspect to describe the same room. Then he discusses which character noticed dead flowers and which one noticed live ones, for example. Fascinating example of Misha Burnett’s point.

      1. I was going to mention that as well. “Cards on the Table” is one of my favorites. The simple question “Describe the room where the murder took place” produced all kinds of interesting insights.

    3. I remember one book I started that eventually got walled because, among other problems, every single character talked like a New York Times reporter. The only exceptions were the really hardcore gangsters, who talked like New York Times reporters with tourette’s syndrome.

    4. I was revising A Diabolical Bargain and noticing all the discussions of flowers.

      Then I noticed that all those were in Nick’s point of view.

      Nick spent a lot of his childhood gardening.

      I hadn’t even noticed that I was correctly separating what different characters would notice.

      Sometimes when you get deep into character, it sorts itself out.

  11. They used papyrus during the regency. Parchment was invented by Gutenberg during the third American civil war because papyrus was too expensive, due to its use in smokeless cartridges. With parchment, cursive replaced cuneiform, paving the way for Gutenberg’s invention of printed text.

  12. My brother once tried to write family stories as a way to make a living. My mother let him interview her as practice. She was from Wisconsin and worked for the dictionary guy, Barnhart
    In the late 1930s. She was the daughter of Swedish immigrants but put herself through college and she always spoke correctly … Not pedantically… Just correctly. My brother gave her this folksy treatment that was indescribably bad. I came to believe that he simply thought and wrote that way so he didn’t even see what he did. Scary to think what I’m doing unconsciously!

  13. Writing pastiches is a good way to pick up how another style is written, and add more tricks your to style bag — and a bad way to produce anything publishable.

  14. I’ve always seen author voice described as your style. Nothing to do with character voices. Author voice is the stuff that identifies the book as yours vs. another author’s. Author voice is branding of you as the author you are.

    1. I didn’t say it was the character voice. (Though when it’s first person, it’s close.)
      Go read what I wrote again. THE BOOK has a voice as well. But yes, I keep hearing about the AUTHOR’S authentic voice and finding it. Which I think is fiddlesticks.

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