The Voice


July 2020  

The Voice

Remember that television show called “The Voice”? Each week, talented singers vied for the approval of the judges to see if they had the best voice. If the judges were publishers and editors, and you read a portion of your novel for three minutes, would you be selected the winner?

I just finished reading James Scott Bell’s book on “Voice”—which I highly recommend. The definitions of an author’s voice have always been a bit vague and varied, and no one seems to know how to achieve it. It’s assumed the author’s voice is what makes his or her writing unique enough to stand out in the crowd, but Bell argues the point. He believes “voice” comes from the character in an author’s story, not from the author alone. His formula involves the character’s background and language filtered through the author’s heart onto the written page (or, C+A=P). Thus, “to create a memorable voice, you must first create a memorable character.”

Whether you prepare character outlines or allow your characters to develop on their own (plotters vs pantsers), you need to (1) decide his/her role and manner in life. Bell’s example is “a straight-laced detective on the verge of retirement,” which gives an immediate impression of who that character is in life. Only then do you (2) sketch your character’s physical appearance and (3) his/her background (level of education, where they grew up, their family life, etc.). The fourth thing Bell suggests is for you, the author, to create an event that occurred in your character’s life at a pivotal age that proved so emotional, it has been carried through to the present. That age can be nine, sixteen, or twenty-seven, depending on your character.

The last thing—what your character wants, desires, yearns for, or dreams of—is usually listed as #1 on most character description lists. After scrolling through photos to find one that fits what you see in your mind as that character, Bell takes us back to “voice” with what he calls a Voice Journal – what your character sounds like when he speaks or thinks. He suggests doing what great actors do when preparing for a certain role. They study that character until they feel what that character feels and thinks what that character thinks.

In my drama class in college, the teacher said that in order to be a good actor, you have to believe the lie. You have to become the character you’re playing to such an extent that every person in the audience forgets they’re watching a play or a movie. Daniel Day-Lewis is a prime example of a “character actor” who immerses himself to such a degree that you forget you’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Suffice it to say that nearly every movie he’s been in, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award. He not only believed the lie—he got the audience to believe it as well. His voice, his accent, his mannerisms, his beliefs became embedded in that character. In comparison, take Robert Redford (forgive me, Redford fans). He’s a good actor, but every movie I’ve seen him in, he was Robert Redford playing a character. He never quite got over himself enough to become that character.

I think this is what Bell is saying when he urges the writer to filter the character, his/her voice, background, and beliefs through your heart (as a writer) while finding something to relate to in your character’s background, something that will make you feel what they feel. As humans, we all have the same basic emotions—fear, jealousy, rage, rejection, joy, and love. We use the same gestures and much of the same language. Find it in yourself and bring it to the surface in your character. For instance, Nora Roberts has one voice for her romance novels and another voice for her J. D. Robb novels.

What does Bell see as your number one priority? It’s not worrying about your voice, your critics, or your audience. It’s writing with joy. When you write with excitement, it comes through. When you love words, it comes through. Write first. Edit second. Be emotionally engaged, and enjoy the ride. Bell quotes the beginning scene in Romancing the Stone. As Joan Wilder types the final scene of her novel, she’s weeping. Real conflict, real emotions = voice.

There is so much more in this slim little volume called “Voice,” but I wanted to touch on the major points in case, like me, you’ve wondered how on earth to find your voice. It’s there. You just have to look inside.

Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.


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