In creative writing, voice has two distinct meanings. There's the author's voice and the character's voice. The author's voice includes noticeable details regarding a writer's style. Character voice tells us about the character's background, disposition, personality (and more) through elements like tone and diction.
It's important to keep an eye out for each form. Is character voice different from author voice? In some instances, they might be quite similar. In others, they're truly unique. Let's take a closer look.
In life, we tend to have our own way of saying things. How we deliver our messages reveals our voice. The same goes for our favorite fictional characters. They have their own way of expressing themselves. Perhaps they're forceful, always cutting others off. Or, maybe they're very proper, speaking in distinct tones. Perhaps they're laid back, using words like, "Yeah," or "Whatever."
It's up to the author to develop character voice for their creations. It will be one of the key elements to a character's personality. If they appear to talk fast, with high levels of energy, we'll know something about their character. If they stutter or are afraid to speak up, we'll know something different. Once a character's voice is established, it's important to remain consistent.
John Steinbeck carefully considered character voice when he wrote Of Mice and Men. With a fast talker and a nervous speaker, Steinbeck created two characters with stark differences.
First, we have Lennie Small. Despite his last name, he's actually a large man with a mental handicap. To play off Lennie, Stein created George Milton, his best friend, who's very small and quick-witted. George is also Lennie's caretaker. Sometimes, it seems like he's being harsh toward Lennie. But, in reality, he loves him deeply and enjoys having someone to care for.
Let's take a look at an excerpt from George and then observe the difference in Lennie's voice.
"God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want… An' whatta I got? I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time.
That was pretty harsh. George doesn't actually want to go ramble around downtown. He's just letting off some steam. Lennie doesn't usually go off on rants like George. But, even without as much text, we can quickly pick up on the differences between the two. Here are a couple of passages spoken by Lennie:
"If you don' want me I can g off in the hills an' find a cave. I can go away any time."
"I don't want no ketchup. I wouldn't eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me."
"If it was here, you could have some."
"But I wouldn't eat none, George. I'd leave it all for you. You could cover your beans with it and I wouldn't touch none of it."
Poor Lennie. He basically tells George to just dump him off at the side of the road so he can go live in a cave alone! We also see times when he just wants to make George happy, even if it's giving him all the ketchup. These two characters are complete opposites, but it's why they're endearing and why their friendship works.
Charlotte's Web is a classic for a reason. The characters in this book are so different, creating a wonderful, multi-layered dynamic between the cast of friends. Charlotte, the spider, has a caring, selfless demeanor. She's kind of the voice of reason. Then, we have Wilbur, the pig. He's very self-effacing. In a way, he's a student of Charlotte's wisdom.
Along with these two main characters, we also have the mischievous rat Templeton, as well as Gussie the Goose, who's prone to stutter and repeat herself. The combination of characters creates a story readers are excited to observe. Here's a sampling of Charlotte's character voice:
You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.
Note that Charlotte speaks in clear tones and tends to have an inspirational slant to her language. Turns out, she's also a role model for readers (both children and adults).
Here's a simple line from Wilbur that packs an emotional punch:
"But Charlotte," said Wilbur, "I'm not terrific."
There's a line from the book that reads, "Wilbur didn't want food. He wanted love." We can observe this throughout the tale, both in Wilbur's voice and in his actions. Luckily, his pal Charlotte is there to not only show him love but also bolster his self-esteem.
As we write, our voice tends to evolve naturally. Everything from our tone, to our word selection, to the way we punctuate our sentences make up an author's voice. For example, do you like to insert a lot of clauses and phrases in between commas? Or, do you prefer short, choppy sentences like Hemingway?
An author's voice speaks to their style, which is usually more apparent in third-person narratives. While character voice comes through in each of the characters, author voice is apparent in the narration itself. In the sizable bits of storytelling between dialogue, you'll be able to note the author's general tone.
In a novel with several characters, there's a chance one (or some) of them might speak like the writer. But, that won't always be the case. A character's language is shaped by their background and personal experience. Their age, nationality, and life experiences may (or may not) be reflect the writer's. Let's explore two examples of author voice.
Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including-which is a bold word-the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-years' dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change-not a knocker, but Marley's face.
Now, let's take a look at a sample from Ernest Hemingway, the master of clear, succinct writing. It wasn't that his sentences were long or short. He believed in a mixture of the two. It was his avoidance of superfluous words, particularly adverbs, and a desire to "cut to the chase." According to statistician Ben Blatt, Hemingway only used 80 -ly adverbs in a span of 10,000 words. Here's an example from The Sun Also Rises:
[Robert Cohn] cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly's star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn's distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose.
The beauty of writing is that, as writers, we can escape our general tendencies and become someone new. Take Jane Austen, for example. As an author, her voice was quite prim and proper. But, in Pride and Prejudice, some of her characters didn't come from high society. So, it wouldn't make sense to give every character a formal voice. Instead, Austen moved outside her "normal" and created unique characters through varying selections of voice.
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