Voice (VOYss) is the opinion or attitude authors express in their writing, an aspect of literature that better connects the reader to the material. It’s also an element of the narrator’s perspective, or what they bring to the piece based on their background, opinions, culture, and life experience. Essentially, voice is the personality of a piece of writing.
Voice comes from the Latin term vocem, which means “utterance or call.” Even though voice is usually meant to describe verbal communication, its literary usage describes the emulation of speech in writing.
Different Types of Voice
Outside of textbooks or other forms of research, writers need to have a distinct voice to captivate their readers. It’s gives an authentic feel to a written work and draws the reader in. The two types of voice that can be found in a narrative are author voice and character voice. While both set the tone of the story, they are distinct.
Everyone has a unique personality, and that personality is what creates an author’s unique voice. It’s determined by their background and world views, and they make it known through their stylistic choices, such as diction and syntax. How authors phrase their thoughts, whether they use foul language, and whether they’re casual or formal all comes together to form their voice. Oftentimes, an author’s voice is so distinctive that it can be recognized in a blind reading of their work.
Usually, an author will draw from their own lives when writing a story, which can influence character voice as well. Authors’ work in the context of their own experiences became a prominent discussion in 2015 when the #OwnVoices movement surfaced. #OwnVoices refers to a piece of writing wherein the author shares the main character’s race, gender, disability, and/or identity—specifically, characters from marginalized groups. This movement surfaced because of how frequently stereotypes appeared in works where authors inaccurately describes experiences distinctly separate from their own. #OwnVoices also promotes stories whose characters’ lives are derived from real-life experiences, as well as works that support marginalized groups.
Like the author’s voice, characters’ voices impart their personality, thought process, and perspective. The author decides whether a character will be funny, shy, ambitious, bossy, or intelligent, then makes it known through the character’s dialogue and characterization.
Dialogue is an effective way to bring out a character’s voice through the words they say, as well as the grammar and structure the writer uses to present those words. For instance, if the character is shy, the author might use short sentences that feature ellipses because the character tends to drop off at the ends of sentences.
Another way to establish character voice is through their characterization. Characters get put into unique situations based on the story’s plot, and the actions they take reveal who they are and what their voice is. If a character goes to a friend’s house, for example, and is surprised by the family’s kindness, readers will know the character’s background is likely one unfamiliar with kind adults. Thus, their voice comes off as reserved or even distrustful.
Voice and Other Literary Terms
Voice vs. Point of View
The narrator’s socioeconomic background determines the voice of a piece, whereas whoever’s telling the story determines the point of view. Pronouns such as I, me, and my mean the piece is written in first person; you and your indicate second person; and he, she, they, them, and their are associated with third person.
The narrator’s point of view affects the work’s voice based on the knowledge the narrator has. With first person, a written work can almost seem like the narrator’s diary because readers are experiencing their inner thoughts. So, the work’s voice will be personal and impart the narrator’s unique perspective. Third person—the most common point of view in fiction—allows the narrator to tune into multiple characters’ thoughts and emotions. A work written in third person can have a less personal voice, as the narrator is observing from outside the situation rather than being a part of it. The voice may even change throughout the piece, as some characters might be more formal or have different backgrounds than other characters.
Voice vs. Persona
Character voice is related to persona in that the latter refers to how the author approaches the story. Persona comes from Latin, where it meant “the actor’s mask.” So, in a literary context, persona is considered the mask an author wears to properly convey how the story’s events are experienced. Persona, then, is an element that affects both the author’s voice and the character’s.
Writers Known for Their Voice
These authors are known for popularizing a unique style of voice in literature.
- Charles Dickens: Because of his background as a lower-class, uneducated factory worker who championed various social reforms, Dickens’s voice is one critical of the socioeconomic class structure in Victorian England.
- William Faulkner: Faulkner often utilizes stream of consciousness to create more authentic character voices, as the style focuses on natural thought processes rather than overly analytical narration.
- James Joyce: Like Faulkner, Joyce was a modernist who utilized stream of consciousness narration to show his characters’ fragmented internal voices. Joyce’s own voice was steeped in the formality characteristic of the modernist movement.
- Edgar Allen Poe: A prolific writer in the Gothic style, Poe’s voice is often dark and melodramatic, communicating feelings of melancholy, longing, and apprehension.
- Hunter S. Thompson: The creator of “gonzo” journalism, wherein Thompson made himself the protagonist in his investigative reporting, Thompson’s voice was often manic and suspicious—due in no small part to his extensive drug use.
- Mary Shelley: In her most famous work, Frankenstein, the voices of the titular scientist and his Creature are laced in paranoia, anger, and regret.
- Mark Twain: Throughout his literary works, Twain uses a very colloquial voice to convey his characters’ backgrounds and influences.
Examples of Voice in Literature
1. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Salinger’s famous work follows protagonist Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned teenager whose cynical voice is portrayed through a vernacular that befits his young age and rejection of polite society. Here, Holden talks about his deceased brother Allie:
I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I?
Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake—especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all.
This first-person account of Holden’s troubled life is made more captivating and authentic by his dialogue. He tends to say “and all” at the end of his sentences, uses contractions, and has a pessimistic view on life. This informal, often flippant voice is strongly associated with teenagers, making Holden feel real and relatable to readers.
2. Jodi Picoult, House Rules
In this novel, a boy with Asperger’s syndrome named Jacob is accused of murdering his tutor. A detective brings him in for questioning, and in the middle of the conversation, Jacob notices the clock and begins to stress about missing his favorite show:
Without any traffic it takes sixteen minutes to get from the police station to my house. That means we will not get home till 4:33, and CrimeBusters begins at 4:30. I stand up, both of my hands fluttering in front of my chest like hummingbirds, but I don’t even care anymore about trying to stop them. It feels like the moment on the TV show when the perp finally caves in and falls to the metal table, sobbing with guilt. I want to be watching that TV show, instead of living it. “Are we done now?” I ask. “Because I really have to go.”
Despite the serious situation, Jacob is fixated on not being able to follow his routine. Through this characterization, Picoult shows the reader how important structure is to Jacob. His sentences are matter of fact and honest, which gives him a methodical, if obsessive, voice.
3. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Upon learning that Willoughby is marrying someone other than Marianne, who he has overtly flirted with and lead on, Lady Middleton makes her disapproval known:
Lady Middleton expressed her sense of the affair about once every day, or twice if the subject occurred very often, by saying, “It is very shocking indeed!” and by the means of this continual though gentle vent was able not only to see the Miss Dashwoods from the first without the smallest emotion, but very soon to see them without recollecting a word of the matter; and having thus supported the dignity of her own sex and spoken her decided censure of what was wrong in the other, she thought herself at liberty to attend to the interest of her own assemblies and therefore determined (though rather against the opinion of Sir John) that as Mrs. Willoughby would at once be a woman of elegance and fortune, to leave her card with her as soon as she married.
Eloquent is the best word to describe Austen’s voice. This entire paragraph, written in third person, is one sentence, yet its syntax is easy to follow. Austen’s word choice is era appropriate, instantly grounding the reader in the societal context of the time in which the story takes place.
Further Resources on Voice
This article by ThoughtCo. lists several quotes that explain a unique element of voice in writing.
Literary Voice: The Calling of Jonah argues the value of literary voice and analyzes speaking in writing.