Who's on mic? A primer on voice

Photo by Gavin WhitnerPhoto by Gavin Whitner


By David G. Brown


Voice is the quality of a piece of writing that conveys personality behind the words. Voice also gives readers an auditory sense of the narrator, as if they can hear the prose.

In our Book Broker interview series, literary agents frequently point to voice as a determining factor in how they choose their clients. Voice is also critical to building and maintaining reader immersion. A charismatic/interesting/distinct narrator pulls us in, makes us curious, and makes us care.

How to infuse your prose with voice

First of all, define your narrator. This is the most important step. The narrator's identity doesn't need to be on the page, but it's something the writer should be clear on.

You have to get inside characters' heads to determine what they will do in a scene and what they will say. The narrator is just one more character—even if the narrator is the author.

When you know who your narrator is, go on a long phoneless walk and consider what this person sounds like—how they speak, how the metaphors and analogies they use hint at their background and hobbies. What do they choose to stress or suppress within a scene? Where are they? When are they?

And with all of this in mind, it's important to note that subtlety is key. When readers perceive that a writer is trying to convey voice, they will have lost immersion.

Author as narrator

An early-draft issue that editors see frequently is shifting voice. This is when the voice changes from scene to scene. Sometimes the POV might be very tight inside a character's head, fully embodying their perspective, and then suddenly it's quite distanced or even fully omniscient.

This omniscient shift frequently feels like authorial intrusion, like the author is stepping in to explain something out of the context of that scene, or outside the present-moment perspective of the character.

If you are the narrator of your story, the narrative should call for it. It should complement the themes and structure. Also, with an author-as-narrator, you should still have an idea of how you will subtly convey your own persona behind the prose. "Timeless storyteller" isn't a distinct personality that readers will easily connect with. Let your individuality shine through.

Distinguishing voice with multiple POVs

The goal in a multi-POV narrative is to have readers fully engaged with each POV character. They will still have their favourite, but you want them to delight in whichever perspective the story takes.

A large part of this comes down to story structure—does each POV character have their own narrative motivation that is leading them to make choices and take action toward a goal? Seems simple, but editors see many storylines where the POV character is a passive window onto the actions of others.

With story structure accounted for, the next critical component is voice. You don't have to give each new POV character a wildly different prose style. Simply stay true to who they are.

Now by multi-POV I am referring to multiple third-person perspectives. It might seem strange to think of the narrator as the character in third person, but that is how this perspective functions. Close or limited third person allows us access to a character's thoughts and experiences. Anything described is necessarily what they see/hear/feel. 

Therefore, it's important to maintain the POV character's filter in all aspects of their descriptions and exposition. Remember the power of character-specific analogies and metaphors. It makes sense for a gardener to think in terms of flowers and roots and rainfall, and less so sailing—or some other topic that is outside of their experience.

I often recommend to clients struggling with a close-third voice to rewrite a scene or chapter in that character's first-person POV, and then to go through and swap the pronouns. That can help create a stabler target for consistency.

Mastering voice

Do writers ever master anything? Should we not always strive to improve?

Some may tell you that writers either have a strong voice or they don't. Perhaps it's true that some people have a natural grasp on poetics, but every aspect of the craft—voice included—can be studied, and in studying we all stand to sharpen our art.

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