Why Having a Unique, Strong Voice is Important & How to Find Yours

My beautiful signed copy of Shadow of Night 

I waited 16 months for the release of Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. I clung to the weekly updates she gave her fans every Friday, I read the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, four times, and I often listened to a playlist I compiled based on the music that inspired the author – ‘cause in turn, it inspired me in my own work. So it’s no surprise that when Shadow of Night came out earlier this month, I read it in 2 days (which meant I got no sleep and was practically a zombie *cough* useless at the day job that week).
But A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night are more than just fantastic stories about a witch named Diana and a vampire named Matthew. These two books hold valuable writing lessons that all writers can benefit from learning, as long as we’re open and ready to absorb and learn them. I’ll preface this by saying that after I read the first book in March 2011, I went out and bought the hardcopy (I had the ebook), highlighted my favorite passages/scenes, and made notes in the margins. And now that I’ve finished the second book, I plan on buying another hardcopy (the original hardcopy is signed by the author, so I don’t want to mark that one up) so I can do the same with it.
This isn’t something I normally make a habit of doing, but I find myself learning more from these particular stories than so many others because they have:

  • Amazing worldbuilding
  • Rich details
  • Writing rule-breaking from time to time, and it works!
  • Great plots (the plot in the first book is subtle, whereas the plot in the second is obvious and you’re reminded in almost every chapter)
  • A heartfelt, touching theme throughout the trilogy
  • Backstories that leave you wanting more
  • Great inner conflict with the main characters
  • And a strong and unique voice

Today I wanted to address the final bullet point: strong and unique voice.
Often we think finding and putting the voice of our characters out there is easy. But then we get back comments from Beta Readers and find out, “Ruh roh, voice ain’t strong enough. Darn!” ß Yes, I take bad news and say it in my best Scooby-Doo voice. It makes it easier to swallow. 😉
So why is it that one element so gosh-darn important anyway?
Having that strong and unique voice:

  • Draws your target audience in with a voice they can relate to. Not just a character, but the voice of the main character(s). There’s nothing better than picking up a book and being able to relate to it because the main character is conveying her thoughts and feelings in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve simply been having a long conversation with someone sitting right beside me. So the next thing I know, I’ve devoured that book within two or three days and I love it.
  • Sets your story apart from every other book on the shelf. Only you can write in that voice for your characters. Only you can tell their story the way it should be told: in their voice! And because you’re the only person who can do that, this means you have something truly unique and different from everything else on the shelves today.
  • Keeps your readership coming back for more! Without it, you might as well kiss some of your readers goodbye. Nothing’s worse than reading a book and feeling as though every word is coming out like the teacher from Charlie Brown: “Wom, wom, wom, wom, wom.” And you feel like that because there’s nothing there to relate to, nothing there to feel as though these characters and that setting are right there in front of you.

So how is it that a writer can get – or find – that strong and unique voice?
Pshaw! That’s easy! *wink* Give these tricks a try:

  • Sit down and have a one on one conversation with your characters. Ask ‘em some fun stuff to get a feel for how they communicate in an everyday setting. Go on for about 5 or so questions, then suddenly get into those deep, not-so-easy-to-answer questions. This should give you a good feel for how they think and how they would convey the story you are putting on the page for them. It also helps with writing dialogue tags because now you have a sense for exactly how a character would say, “Dag-nab-it, Judy! I told you not grab that thing’s arse!”
  • While revising, read internalizations and dialogue aloud. Don’t include the descriptions or dialogue tags, read only the internalization and what’s between the quotation marks. Read these aloud separately. You’ll discover those areas where the words seemed forced and don’t have that flow. Like your character isn’t relatable, or maybe they sound more like a robot who speaks perfect English. Mark those areas then come back to them when you’re ready to rewrite them.
    • One way to easily mark these for easy read-through is using Margie Lawson’s EDITS system: highlight the internalizations yellow, and highlight the dialogue – just the words between the quotation marks – blue. In class, Margie suggests reading only the dialogue aloud, but I prefer to also read the inner thoughts of the character too because they’re just as important as the dialogue, and they’ve got to sound natural and free flowing as well.
  • While writing the first draft, or rewriting the second or third draft, write with this singular thought in mind: You are simply the vessel to their story. For me, sitting down at the computer with this thought in mind keeps my voice from getting in the way, ‘cause when the voice of the author and their characters begin fighting for dominance, that’s when you’ll either end up with a weak voice, a normal, not-so-great voice, or you just might lose the voice altogether. So write with the thought in mind that what you think, you believe and how you’d react don’t matter. Hang those thoughts and beliefs in the closet when you sit down to write, and open yourself up. Let those characters write through you in the truest voice you can possibly convey: theirs.

For more information on voice, here are a few of my favorite/bookmarked posts on the subject:
Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Voice by Janice Hardy
Do Your Stories Match Your Voice? by Jami Gold
How about you? Do you pull lessons from some of your favorite novels? Are there a few that you can learn voice from? How else is having a strong and unique voice important? Do you have any other tips or tricks for getting that voice strong and unique enough?

2 thoughts on “Why Having a Unique, Strong Voice is Important & How to Find Yours

  1. Great post! This is so relevant to a problem I've been having in my latest WIP. The voice of my character radically shifted about half way through and I didn't understand why. Your post made me realize that the "new" voice is actually how he wanted to speak all along, and me – the big bad author – tried to impose my voice on him. *Hangs head* Noting it as a fix for editing round. Thanks, Melinda! 😀

  2. Hi Tina,

    Thanks, hon! Oh wow, I'm so glad this post helped you out with that. And I've realized that a very common problem, especially in the first draft when we're just starting to get to know our characters and their voices. At least yours happened in the middle of the story, though. I found my character's *true* voice after I got through about 3 rounds of edits and started writing some 'after the end' scenes, and BAM! There it was. LOL! 🙂

    It should be an easy fix, so that's the good part. 😀

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Glad this post was helpful!

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