Thursday, October 8, 2009

Two Voices...and Penguins

MG Higgins
recently did a post that sparked my thoughts about voice. I normally hate the term voice. It annoys me because it's such a slippery term; it can mean so many different things depending on how you look at it and who's defining it.

I propose this today that there are at least two voices in every work. Did you know that the emperor penguin, like most birds, has a two-part organ that produces its "voice?" In most birds, these two parts of the organ are used separately from each other, but in several species of penguins, they're used together. Especially with the emperor penguin. Because there's no possible way for the penguins that mate together to find each other's nests in order to switch off "egg warming" duty, they must use their distinct voice pattern to recognize each other for the rounds.

Hmm, two voices creating a distinct voice that matches no other. Because there're a lot of penguins waddling around on that ice.

Which Two?
First, I've noticed in every novel I've written, there are two voices. The first one?

My voice.

I think this is something extremely hard to lose or avoid unless, like I've done before, you're being dishonest with yourself and trying to write something that's not who you are. Every writer has a voice. It just sort of happens. And it's not something I feel you can consciously alter. Our experiences make it what it is. It shows through in every word choice, every sentence construction. In my opinion, referring to MG Higgins's post, this voice does not change.

The other one?

Your narrator's voice.

This is often the Main Character, but think of it in terms of the essential viewpoint character, the one you cannot tell the story without. They have a voice, just like you do. In my novel, Monarch, I have three POV characters, but only one is the essential viewpoint of the story, and he flavors everything, even the other viewpoints. In my opinion, this voice should change.

Like MG says:
In my novel, my main character makes an important life decision and becomes more self-aware. So she shouldn't sound exactly the same on the last page as she does on the first. She's still spunky (since that's a personality trait), but not as sarcastic. And she's more relaxed because her decision has been made.

Remember the Penguin
So like the penguins, try to remember that you've got dual voices going on, and that they should work together to create a feel for that novel, and that novel alone. This is how we can write completely different novels that feel distinct, but the same. Our voice usually doesn't change (unless over a long period of time as we change) but each essential viewpoint will change for a different book (outside of a series, I suppose).

MG said she has a hard time separating personality traits that don't change from a situational-based personality trait that's more pliable. Those pliable traits, like MG's character's sarcasm, are what make a story arc exciting. When a character actually changes their worldview because of the action, choices they make, etc., that's when the story gets exciting. They change. They grow. Their voice should change to reflect that!

Question For the Day: Do you feel like you have two voices going on in your work? How does it help you, if you do?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Depends on the pov.
    In third, I feel like the narrator has a voice, and the pov character(s) have their own voice.

    If I'm writing in first person past, I also feel like there are two voices-- one is the narrator's current "voice", and the exposition and narration seems to me to come from that pov character's older, more mature, reflective self.

    But when I write first person present , I like to make the voice match the pov and feel like there's only the one "voice". There's no time for reflection, or getting older and wiser between the time the story happens and the time it is "told". This is something I'm struggling with right now, but I think present tense is the right choice for the story.

    Very thought-provoking post, Glam!

  2. To me, voice is my novel. It's my voice like you say. The way my characters express their thoughts and the way they act is something different. It is in other words the narrator.

    These two voices intermingle on the page, but still remain TWO different voices. The author voice, the MC voice depending on what tense you're writing in.

    The narrator 'voice' can and probably should be different at the end of the story, but there still should be a consistency throughout, like you say.

    We all have the two voices in our stories. Sometimes we don't realize it though. We aren't always conscious of it. Which is good. :)

  3. I have the similar sense to Tere and Robyn. There are two voices working on, as you say, Michelle. But, sometimes they match up and are indistinguishable. When I'm writing from multiple points of view, as I "pan out" from my characters, I feel like there's only one voice. But, when I'm closer in, I get into that second voice. This is something new that I've come to appreciate in other writers. Some people, like Tolstoy, are able to slip into different voices so easily and with so little explanation.

  4. Oh, and I never knew the penguins had two voices. I always wondered how they found each other!

  5. I find that I am stuggling to distinguish between the voices of my main character and narrator. I'm currently writing in third person and condering switching it to first. I go back and forth about which way to write it... and it is really frustrating. Bah!

  6. Great post . . . and it's making my head hurt from thinking about it.

    I don't write in first person. I always write in third person. I have multiple POV clearly defined by section breaks. So, many voices clamoring around in my head . . . uh . . . manuscript.

    In many ways, there are more voices than I care to count. Why? Well, doesn't each character have their own distinct 'voice', so to speak? So, even if a character isn't a POV character, doesn't their 'voice' - quirks, idiosyncricies, etc. - have to shine through as well? If one character, not POV, is quite snarky, doesn't that snarkiness need to carry through the entire manuscript? So - my voice, the narrator's voice(s), and the peripheral voices that need to be present to make the story come alive - that's a heck of a lot of voices.

    I'm with you, I don't like the term 'voice' because it is way too general and has too many meanings.

    I'm off to find some aspirin!


  7. I think I have maybe 1.5 voices in my work. My narrator sounds a lot like me, and the character's thought processes sound like me sometimes

  8. LOL, Dominique. I think I suffer from the same thing.

  9. This is why I like writing female MCs rather than male MCs. With female ones, at least for me, there's less of a danger of my voice and the character's voice becoming the same one (or at least I've convinced myself of that).

    But there are definitely two voices in every story. Sometimes more depending on how many times you change POV/narrator character.

    Great thing to think about, Glam!

  10. I love your comparison, Glam (and the penguins in general)!

    Hmm... two voices. That's hard for me right now. I feel like sometimes my voice and the narrator's voice are hardly separated. Must get to work on that!

  11. Michelle: I agree about the author's voice and the narrative voice both being present in the story and both (hopefully) being different. I think that the author's voice is sort of the foundation upon which the narrative voice is built, and is more-or-less unchanging and also not really within the author's control, if you know what I mean.

    For "So Honest A Man," the narrative voice (1st-person) is one part Shakespeare, one part me and one part a sort of "modernized" Elizabethan speech. My narrator is also smarter than I am, which was a hard trick to pull off.

    For my WIP "Cocke & Bull," the narrative voice (3rd-person limited) is something more akin to Hemingway and Melville, though I notice bits of Shakespeare coming through (which is no surprise).

    Beneath both of these narrative voices is my own voice, which I can see in certain turns of phrase, rhythms and word choices. I think that if you read a lot of books by the same author, you'll recognize their distinct voice no matter what the book or POV. In my opinion, this voice, the author's voice, is the stronger voice of the two and the one that, really matters the most. I think character voices are more like suits we put on and take off. I don't think enough writers work on strengthening their personal authorial voice.

    I don't read YA or MG fiction, so I don't care for it when the voice changes during the course of the novel. Though in practice I think narrative voice maybe does change anyway, in all novels. I'll have to think about that one. Does Jane Eyre's voice change over the course of the novel, or does her opinion of things change while she remains herself?

  12. Really informative further exploration of voice, Michelle. It's so exciting how these discussions get started and expand with new ideas. Great comments, too.

  13. Interesting way of looking at things. I hadn't really thought of it in these terms. If the voice is mine it would be told from my POV. I may have to keep thinking about this to internalize the idea.

    With the music concept in mind for POV I'm thinking my voice would be the instrument (like a cello or piano) and the narrator's voice would be the melody played on the instrument.

  14. This is an interesting topic. There are several ways to look at it...

    I see voice in the narrative, and then the voices of the characters, i.e. what's outside the quotes v. inside the quotes. I try to give each characters a unique voice.

    For different works, I have different narrative voices. The voice I use for FATE'S GUARDIAN, a novel of paranormal suspense, is very different from EARTH'S END, a humorous work of literary fiction.

  15. Tere: Oh, wow, I didn't think of it going in directions of POV! That's some great discussion ideas there. Thank you for sharing!

    I usually don't think about this stuff, or try not to, or it starts to interfere with my natural ability to storytell, if that makes sense. I'm glad you're trusting your instinct going with the present tense for your current story.

    Robyn: Yes, like you say, we aren't always conscious of it. I usually try not to be, and just let my characters speak as they will. Seems to be working so far!

    Davin: I didn't make it very clear in my post that I'm in agreement with the point you make in your comment - that the voices can be indistinguishable. I've found that many, many times in stories I love. Oftentimes the writer identifies closely with the narrator, or the writer is simply that good at putting themselves into the narrator's voice. Interesting thoughts here!

    Amber: That's definitely a difficult decision. I feel that there's usually a best tense for each story we tell, but sometimes it's hard to figure out which tense that should be. Good luck!

    Scott: I thought about that too, how each character has a voice, and I'm in agreement. But I also think that a novel has a certain "feel" to it - like the sound of a specific penguin's call. Each one is different, pulled from two distinct voices that can intermingle like Davin suggests, or remain separate. I think that with more than two really strong voices, many stories might fail.

    Like I said, I have three POVs in my novel, but the narrator's voice is the main voice next to mine. The other voices in the novel help flavor it all.

    I'm not sure I'm making any sense. I'll be quiet now. :)

    Dominique: Hehe, nice way to look at it. Most likely, your voice is just very similar to your narrator's and blending nicely.

    Davin: Like I said to Dominique, your voices are just blending nicely. I know they blended nicely in Rooster. I loved it.

    Matt: Thanks, Matt! I think there can be more than two voices, as well, as Scott suggested up above, but I like the idea of just two really surrounding the story. It feels more simple to me. I like simple. I'm also a little crazy.

    Mariah: No, first make sure that it's just not a case of the two voices actually being different, but blending. That might be the case. Only you'll know though.

    Scott B.: I get what you're saying about the author's voice being the foundation. It has to be that way, since we as the author, create the character.

    Really good thoughts here. I like how your author voices is colored by other author's voices. I'm not sure if mine is or not. Also, I agree that the author voice should always be the stronger voice, and that many writers mix up character voices with their own.

    Like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, I'm not sure Jane Eyre's voice changes much throughout the narrative. Both are very strong characters that seem to change the other characters more than themselves being changed - although they do grow in specific ways. I'm not sure their voices change much, though. Great example. :)

    MG: Thanks, MG! Thanks for the inspiration!

    Lois: Interesting take there with the music analogy. I like that!

    Rick: Now that I have several works of my own to look at, I also see the different "narrative voice" as you say. In my literary short stories, it's different than in my novels. I think, though, that underlying it all is my true voice that creates a foundation for any genre I'm working in. Good thoughts!

  16. Great post. So interesting to learn that about penguins (and birds in general). As for voice in my works, I really don't know.

    I haven't written enough fiction to know.

    But in my poetry, I definitely think that I've come to a point where I can recognize that another voice than my own is there. There's this one poem especially from the work I have out in a contest right now that has this almost biting but alluring voice that is so not mine.

    So I guess I can start to see it, just not in my fiction.

  17. Novice: I've never thought of my voice in poetry before! I should, though. Not sure why I haven't before, but it's something I need to remember when I'm writing poetry. So it looks like we're switched!

  18. I think most of my fiction has my (unconfident) voice, but that's because many of my stories stay in their first drafts.

    But, occasionally I get "in the zone," and a character's voice will come out strong and distinct. Then I know I'm actually writing something good.

  19. Annie: Ah, the ZONE. I wish it was something I could bottle up and use whenever I needed! I always notice my voice comes out best when I'm not focusing on it.

  20. I was never really this clear on voice either. I'm so grateful for this post!!

  21. There are a lot of voices. Every time someone speaks I need to get their voice in the dialog.

    I think you mean non-dialog voices.
    It depends on 1st vs 3rd POV of course. One of the keys to modern literature is to write in the voice of the POV character and eliminate the narrator's voice completely. I don't know if this is completely possible, since certain scenes require a more omniscient POV.

  22. Excellent post, LG,

    In my first novel, my voice and the MC's voice were sadly mostly the sad. It was a third person pov. I have still discovered (I think) how to differientate my voice from the MC's by basically drawing up an entire backstory for the MC, discovering her likes and dislikes; basically what makes her tick.

  23. I totally agree. I did a post on this recently, too--character voice vs. author voice. It's important to be aware of the importance of both when writing.

  24. L.T. Glad it could be helpful!

    Andrew: Yes, I meant non-dialogue voices. Not sure I'm thinking modern literature's point is to eliminate the narrator's voice. I'll have to think about that one.

    Crimey: You keep excelling, and I keep smiling!

    Roni: Being aware of it is good for me up to a point, then I just have to forget and let things flow. I'm sure you know what I mean. I'll have to go find your post. :)

  25. I totally agree. The voice will be different at the beginning, middle, and the end. The MC is supposed to go through some sort of change, so he/she's voice should also change a little.

  26. I find it hard to change voices between characters. I fear that my character's dialogue all sounds a lot a like.


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