The voice is one of a writer’s most important tools. Sure, being able to write good and spel stuff is important too, but if a writer can truly grab their audience then some sins can be overlooked. In fact, along with plot and character, voice is one of the three key tools in the writer’s workshop. Together they give you: what’s going to happen in your story; who’s going to make it happen (and, if you’re doing things properly, why); and how it’s going to be told.
Warning – the rest of this piece will unavoidably include some shameless plugs for a few of my stories…
One of the great advantages of the short story form is that it lets you try out a multitude of voices with only a limited risk of pissing off your audience. For a budding writer such as myself this is an infinite and invaluable playground: I can not only take time to discover my own voice without having to go back and rewrite screeds of fiction but also try on plenty of other voices for size.
For my first two stories, Colder Still and Graves, I didn’t give much thought to the voice. I was far more concerned with telling the story and, at that stage in my non-career, simply finishing it (actually, the finishing is still proving an issue…). With Colder Still, in particular, I was a little surprised to end up with two characters who bore virtually no resemblance to myself: one a bitter drunkard; the other a soldier in World War II (I am neither of those things). In fact for a time I was marginally worried that readers would think that the the bitter drunkard character was in some way meant to represent my own inner voice (he doesn’t in any way).
For Graves I was far less ambitious. I made no real attempt to define a voice since the main character simply provides a viewpoint for the reader; he doesn’t drive the story greatly, merely lets it happen around him. For stories like that you sometimes want a Generic Male (or Female) so that readers can more easily put themselves into the story. (As a footnote here, judging by the reception for Graves, which is easily my most popular story to date, I think I’d successfully found my voice by this point).
Obviously then I got cocky. My next story, Bunnies, proved a real challenge. Following a slightly tortuous development I eventually settled on a story in two halves, with a different primary character in each half… which, of course, meant two voices again. To make life even harder for myself I decided the first half would be from the viewpoint of a nine-year-old girl (and I haven’t been one of those since ever!). After writing the first page a few dozen times I realised the interesting conundrum this posed: how to give my story the voice of a nine-year-old girl but not make it read as if it had been written by a nine-year-old girl. I got there in the end, but it took quite a few drafts to get to a point where I was happy with what I was doing.
While most of my stories default to a Generic Male voice, the experience of writing Bunnies did give me the confidence to not shy away from other voices when needed. For The Last Laugh, a parody of pulp/noir fiction, I not only had to move out of the horror genre that I’d settled comfortably into (unless you find clowns scary, in which case we’re still right at home there) but make sure that my main character had just the right hard-boiled tone about him.I’m not sure how successful I was with the story, but it was certainly a lot of fun to write.
In perhaps my boldest departure yet, the story I started last week is written from the point of view of … well, I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say the main character could hardly be further away from who I am. I hope I can pull it off.
As a last footnote I’ve noticed, while writing this post, that I’m not particularly keen on the voice it uses. It seems – to me at least – a little self-important (“When I was knocking back some beers with my good friend Shakespeare the other day, I gave him some points on that new Scottish play of his …”). I’ve toned it down a bit but since I don’t want to labour this post, and since it’s probably just me being self-conscious, I’ve decided to leave it as it stands. Just seemed an interesting final irony …