We hear much about distinctive authorial voices, and can all recognise our favorites’ in a matter of sentences (or less). But sometimes, writers run into trouble when it comes to discussion of their own voice. It can be hard to have an objective perception of how we might be heard by readers. In fact, many of us find it tricky to even express how we want to be perceived. You might have lots of great ideas and passion for a story, but you’re not quite sure how to tell it as you – how to add the music to the lyrics, if you will.
So if you’re just beginning to write, or you like to dabble with different genres, age ranges, or narrative points of view, how can you find your voice – one that’s unique and recognisable? What kind of writing practices can help you progress towards a voice that’s entirely yours, and keep readers engaged? How have other writers created their own strong sense of voice?
It might sound abstract, but it needn’t be! Many writers have felt challenged by this task, but in this article, we give you five simple steps you can take to make sure you and your readers can find your voice in your fiction. You can also have a look at other articles we have on writing craft, including steps to writing a novel, writing great dialogue, how to structure a story, and how to develop brilliant characters.
Your voice. Yes, find it. Don’t ask me how. It’s a discovery that’s as mysterious as it sounds, but at some point you will suddenly realize that you are channelling an authentic part of you. And that’s it. Magic.–Kate Atkinson
So without any further ado, here are our five steps for finding your voice in fiction:
Forget your mission to find your voice
Use your theme
Characterise your flaw
Revise, revise, revise
Step 1: Forget your mission to find your voice
Many writers begin with a simple goal: to disappear from their work entirely.
Invisibility is a superpower.–Banksy
It might sound counterintuitive, but this is actually a great starting point as you seek to find your voice.
In fact, it’s probably the only place to start. If you put pen to paper with what you think is a voice, you’re bound to make the mistake of being ‘quirky’. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Roughly 99% of us do the same thing when we start to write. We all want to be ‘different’.
The danger of writing to be different
But that ‘quirky’ voice may well be derivative, often stemming from your favourite book or the book you’re reading. And the problem is, inauthentic voices will likely alienate (at least) half your readers – and most literary agents.
Instead, try to imagine you’re speaking to someone close to you, with whom you can be yourself and have confidence. Address your reader as you would a friend and forget about all the poetic stuff.
So as you start your story, listen to George Orwell and aim to make your prose like a window pane.
Step 2: To find your voice you’ll need to consider structure
No matter how good a phrase or a simile (the writer) may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. –Ernest Hemingway
You’ve probably seen this quote before. Notice the word ‘architecture’?
Again, this step might seem surprising, but it’s truly an effective way to find your voice. Give yourself a rigid structure as early as possible. It could just be committing yourself to writing 3 scenes per chapter, and a total of 10 chapters. Better still, try something as tricky as poetry or as constrictive and quixotic as every paragraph starting with A, then B, then C. Ponder, test and count your words. You may find it’s just the ticket to find your voice.
We can probably all agree that Sally Rooney has strong a voice in all the fiction she has written. But have you ever noticed that she actually has structure first and foremost? For example, every chapter of Normal People is structured to the same tight ABA formula: Action, Backstory, Action.
Step 3: Your theme is the key to find your voice
Don’t be shy.
You have an idea, and now it’s time to put it into words and onto the page. That’s the real work you need to do as you find your voice.
Orwell, who touted ‘prose like a window pane’, had a bee in his bonnet about money. He really had a hard time with the topic. Fittingly, Keep Flying the Aspidistra is an extended rumination on the evil necessity of money. He even rewrote one of the most famous passages of the Bible as a satire on our tragic way of life.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things... And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.I Corinthians xiii (adapted)–George Orwell
Money might not be what moves you or your story. And that’s okay. But there must be some message, value, or theme at the heart of what you’re writing. Search for that when you’re developing your story, and have fun with it. It’s one of the keys to finding your voice.
Don’t write didactic fiction
The point is it’s dandy to have a rant so long as you are making a drama out of it, and not being a pain in the arse and trying to educate and illuminate us non-fiction style. Stories are the place for inspiration, not education.
Of course, when you’re writing fiction, you’ve got to be flexible; see things from another point of view. But by dramatising your hang-up, not only will you treat your malaise, you’ll entertain us. It’s fiction; exaggerate.
A useful way to think about how your personal or literary ‘theme’ can help you find your voice is to consider how published writers approach exposition of character in the novels they’ve written.
Take the Dickensian way of ramming eccentricities home via dogged fixations. While such explicit characterisation might seem old-fashioned, it happens in its own way in modern literature.
How? As with most things in fiction: through authorial selection. Whether consciously or not, you demonstrate your point of view simply by selecting what you show us.
The risk is that this can bring a slight hammy quality to your characters. Try and temper it so the illusion isn’t spoilt for the reader. If your characters are turned a little grubbily, don’t fret. It happens even in works of ‘realism’ we know and love. You see, real people are quite dull. They don’t speak their minds very often. Then when they do, they say the same thing over and over again. Fiction doesn’t need that.
Step 4: Characterise your flaw
While you develop your ideas and embrace your theme, you can also go all in on the flaws you create for your protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is a snob, and enjoyably so. Ove, from A Man Called Ove, is a grudge-bearing misanthrope. We like them.
Often, a good way to choose your character’s flaw is to give them your own. Think about what people who don’t like you might say about you. Then give those traits to your protagonist to deal with.
You can find lots of great advice on choosing and introducing a character’s flaw here.
Step 5: Revise, revise, revise
Often, a writer’s voice is there in the first draft but it’s initially a bit blowhard and showy. It’s another sign of a newer writer.
Not to worry – that’s why self-editing is so powerful. Your style will get pared back to its essence in revision as you find your voice. An elegance emerges and somehow, perhaps counterintuitively for all this styling and re-styling, you’ll likely uncover something that’s more truly, more authentically your voice. You’ll start to hear it as music.
One day soon, your search will be over and will find out what your voice is. Just when you no longer need to know it. Well, I never did, you’ll say, fancy that. And then you’ll start writing your next story without considering the matter of voice at all.