“Humility is no substitute for a good personality.”
Happy first Monday of 2013!
Back in December, I wrote about my basic description of a writer’s voice. Today and for the next couple weeks I’d like to break that down into what I believe are the elements of a strong writer’s voice, beginning with what (in my opinion) is the most important element: personality.
The most grammatically perfect paragraph will leave most readers flat if there’s no personality, if it’s just dry text, because it’s missing the connection to humanity. What is personality, after all, but you, the individual? So what is voice, after all, but you, the writer?
What do I mean by that?
I mean the most elemental part of you that reacts to any given situation. Like…
When you’re sitting in a long line of bumper-to-bumper traffic in a construction zone, and a car goes shooting up the shoulder of the road, then scoots right in front of you as you’re easing your foot off the brake, hoping to move one lousy inch forward.
- Do you shrug and figure that other drive probably has a good reason for not getting in at the end of the line, like maybe he/she needs to get to the hospital to visit a dying relative? Or maybe it’s a husband driving a wife who’s about to give birth? (The writer me loves making up those possibilities!)
- Or do you presume the other driver is being a selfish jerk, and he/she picked that moment and that spot to butt into the line because the world is out to get you?
We all react differently to a single situation, depending on our personalities. Voice is “simply” a manifestation of personality. I use the word “simply,” but there’s nothing simple about voice. Maybe it would make more sense if I used the word style. We each have a unique style in dress, mannerisms, listening, speaking, and writing. Are you naturally a witty person who responds to stress by making a joke? Your writing voice probably reflects that. Are you a drama queen/king? I’ll bet your writing style has a dramatic flair to it. Even if you are you a quiet person whose thoughts are rarely on display, your writing style/voice might have that introspective quality.
Our personalities and style (I think) are good indicators of our innate and instinctive writing voices. It’s the writer’s job to take that voice and control it, use it, to build interesting sentences and scenes, and characters that will draw a reader into the story.
Sometimes it’s best to describe by example.
Superstar romance author Nora Roberts writes a series of futuristic police procedurals as J.D. Robb. (I know some of you aren’t fans of Roberts/Robb and are right now pooh-poohing me. If you want to write successfully in the commercial fiction market, however, I think it’s smart to study the people who are successful, and I don’t think anyone can argue with her success.)
Robb’s In Death series stars homicide detective Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the New York Police & Security Division and her planet-owning, gazillionare husband, Roarke. (I don’t know if that’s a first or last name, but it’s the only one he seems to have!) Every book highlights a different murder, usually with Dallas and Roarke collaborating and cohabitating very nicely, and over the course of the series (at current count, somewhere in the ballpark of 50 stories…wow!) readers get to know the two pretty well. Although they both have backgrounds that forced them to claw their way from poverty and depravity, and worse, they are polar opposites in many ways. Eve is a tough, no-nonsense city girl and has an inherent repulsion (and possibly fear) of nature and the outdoors. Roarke grew up on the mean streets of Dublin yet seems to have retained an Irishman’s love of all that is green.
Here’s the opening of Robb’s Indulgence in Death (2010, G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Dallas and Roarke are off on a much-deserved vacation in Ireland, when Dallas spots some of the indigenous “wildlife.” (We’re in Dallas’ POV, in her head.)
The road was a killer, hardly wider than a decent stream of spit and snaking like a cobra between giant bushes loaded with strange flowers that resembled drops of blood.
She had to remind herself that the trip had been her idea – love was another killer – but how could she have known driving in western Ireland meant risking life and limb at every curve?
Rural Ireland, she thought, holding her breath as they zipped around the next turn on the Journey of Death. Where the towns were barely a hiccup on the landscape, and where she was pretty damn sure the cows outnumbered the people. And the sheep outnumbered the cows.
And why didn’t that cause anyone concern? she wondered. Didn’t people consider what could happen if armies of farm animals united in revolt?
As a homicide detective, Dallas sees horrific murder and the worst of humanity played out on the city streets, but the sight of a few cows and sheep makes her more than nervous. (That’s a great character trait, by the way, but a discussion for another day.) Do you see how Robb used the character’s experience and personality – phrases like “strange flowers that resembled drops of blood” and “journey of death” – to convey her emotions that are unique to her? This to me is a perfect example of a character’s voice, or personality.
Of course Roberts/Robb has her own writer’s voice, and that too is reflected in the tightly crafted, packed-with-punch wording. I often sense a dry wit in her writing as well, and at times I can hear her real (audible) voice in my head as I’m reading.
So many of us have learned (been taught) to harness our emotions in our public lives. In writing, depending on your character, your scene, and your goals for both, you need to find those emotions. That’s you and your character talking. That’s voice. Use it.
Whatever is going on in your book, put yourself /your character in that situation, dig down into the deepest and innermost emotions, and let your fingers fly. I’m not saying every sentence and every scene has to be packed with gut-wrenching emotion. That would be too much…waaaay too much. I’m saying to unleash those emotions and let your (and your character’s) voice out – let your styles shine. Let your personalities speak.
With practice, you can learn to incorporate your unique “humanity” into your writing to give your readers characters that feel real, and a meatier, more interesting story.
Happy writing, all!
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as senior acquisitions editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.