Many Voices, Many Stories

So far this week I’ve been writing about the rich diversity in the world of literature—diversity of paths to publication, diversity of forms. Today I’m focusing on the diversity of voices.

What is authorial voice? “You know it when you hear it,” is a typical if less-than-enlightening answer. Most people think of voice as that elusive quality that makes an author’s writing unique. Word choice, tone, punctuation, point of view, sensibility, style, personality, rhythm, syntax—all this and more goes into voice.

Voice isn’t content; it’s the way that content is translated onto the page. Voice is easy to recognize in music. Take the same song lyrics sung, for example, by Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, and Little Richard. You’d never mistake one for the other. In the same way, you’d never confuse Charles Dickens with J. R. R. Tolkien or Hawthorne with Louise Penny. Your voice as an author is yours alone. Developing your authorial voice takes time.

Character voice is different. One of the joys of writing for me is revealing character through dialogue. Ideally, each character should have his or her own vocabulary, pet phrases, tone, tendency for brevity or verbosity, and accent. Readers will understand a character not only by what they say but how they say it.

Here’s an example from my WIP. My protagonist, Kate, an American in her forties, is questioning Mrs. Wright, a working-class Londoner in her sixties, about her previous employer:

“Had she seemed different lately?” I asked. “Worried, upset, short-tempered?”

Mrs. Wright wrinkled her forehead in thought. “I ‘ardly knew her, did I? Never ‘ad a chat—not a proper one like we’re ‘aving now. Mostly she’d leave notes on the table, telling me what she wanted. Never gave me no trouble.”

The ideal employer. “How did she pay you?”

“Cash. In an envelope in the cookie jar.”

“Did she ever talk about her family? The tragedy of her husband’s death?”

“Never. I ‘eard about it, o’ course, but I never dared ask.”

“And you didn’t know about Lucy—her daughter?”

Mrs. Wright shifted in her seat. “I may ‘ave heard a whisper in the village, but       never from ‘er. Not a word from ‘er.”

The voices of our characters should come through without the overuse of dialogue tags. Not easy to do, but worth the effort.

One important and timely aspect of voice is characterized by the hashtag #OwnVoices. “Own Voices” means that if you create a main character who is part of a minority or marginalized group, you as the author are part of that group.

Kayla Whaley, novelist, essayist and senior editor at Disability in KidLit, describes #OwnVoices as a useful shorthand term for books with diverse characters, written by authors who share those identities:

            Even when portrayals of diverse characters by majority-group authors are respectfully and accurately done, there’s an extra degree of nuance and authority that comes with writing from lived experience. Those books that are #OwnVoices have an added richness to them precisely because the author shares an identity with the character. The author has the deepest possible understanding of the intricacies, the joys, the difficulties, the pride, the frustration, and every other possible facet of that particular life—because the author has actually lived it.

This does not mean our books must be populated with people exactly like us. I try to create a fictional world that looks as much as possible like the real one we live in. That means including a variety of characters with physical, mental, psychological, and emotional differences and preferences. Nevertheless, authors who have had to fight for a seat at the table while seeing their own stories taken, misused, and published by others as authentic must be encouraged, elevated, and celebrated. I hope we are doing that, because every voice needs to be heard.

Which fictional characters have made an impact on you?

If you’re an author, how have you developed your own authorial voice?


  1. I love your note about you know it when you hear it! Not helpful, ever, as you say. On the other hand…. true. And you are so right, authentic voices resonate and we need as many of those as we can get.

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