Monday, February 1, 2010

Tone versus Voice: But what’s “voice” and whose voice?

These are my comments in a discussion on the SCBWI boards on tone versus voice. I’m of the position that the voice of a story is the narrator or POV character’s, while someone else said it is the unique voice of the author. What do you think?

Tone is simple. Tone can be humorous, melodramatic, etc.. It's mood. It's style. Books by different writers with different characters can still have the same tone.

Voice, however, is complex. It's a world view. It's a unique way of seeing and expressing everything in the story. It can be of a certain tone--humorous, for example--but it goes beyond that. How is the humorous tone created? How does the MC or narrator see the world?

For example, in the Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison, the tone is humorous. And yet Georgia's voice isn't intentionally funny. She sees herself "on the rack of love," suffering because of her crazy family and her dither spaz best friend, and all tragic. The humorous tone is created in only the way Georgia's unique voice can create it, her unique way of seeing and describing her world.

I guess one way to put it is the style might tell you it's abstract, but the way it's done tells you it's a Kandinsky.

Yes, to me the tone of a piece of writing is the mood. I think others were saying something similar when comparing it to the tone of voice you use when you say something. You can have an angry tone or a humorous one. Those are moods.

Also, I'd like to point out that in many works of fiction today, the voice is the character's, not the writer's. I know that's the case in my writing. Although some things pop up in different stories of mine, I like to think that is more a matter of my style, that it doesn't prevent the character's voice from shining through.

I think it's important for voice to remain consistent in a story--at least when the POV character is the same--but I don't like it when writers are incapable of changing the voice from story to story. It makes all their stories and all their characters sound the same, and that's boring. Some of us aspire to be Woody Allen; some of us aspire to be Meryl Streep. I'd much rather be Meryl Streep. I know I'm not there yet, but that is the dream.

I would take lack of authorial voice as a huge compliment! To me that would mean the ability to get out of the way and let the story just be itself. That ability would be an amazing thing--if I could achieve it. But, alas, I can't. That would take the rarest talent indeed.

I read stories because they immerse me, not in the writer's skin and world, but in the character's skin and world. When I read Lord of the Rings, I'm a hobbit on a desperate mission to save Middle Earth. I'm not Tolkien. Indeed, I'd find that boring. I'm sure even Tolkien found that boring. If he didn't, he probably wouldn't have written the darn thing!

You say it's the writer's voice that makes one story different from another. I say it's the voice of the narrator or POV character that makes one story different from another. How could anyone else's story sound like mine with different characters' unique voices? I created my characters, and another writer will create his characters, and those characters will give each of our stories a unique voice. Not only will my characters' voices make my work completely different from another writer's, but they'll make each of my stories completely different from one another, or at least they will if I've done my job properly.

Although I love being a hobbit in Middle Earth, I don't want to just be a hobbit. Not when there are an infinite number of stories out there, an infinite number of worlds I can visit and see through a unique set of eyes belonging to a character with a unique voice with every book I pick up. And this is the way I want to write.

You say there would be no reason for anyone to prefer my stories over that of an equally skilled writer. On the contrary! The question isn't about which writer you would prefer to read but whose characters you would prefer to spend time with, which world you'd like to visit for a while.

If you want to hear Meryl Streep in her own voice, watch an interview with her. But if you want to enter the world of Julia Child and hear Julia in her unique voice wax poetic about French cuisine, watch her in "Julie & Julia." And if all you hear is Meryl's New Jersey accent when you're watching the movie, I'm sure even Ms. Streep would admit she'd failed miserably in what she was trying to accomplish. When the audience can't separate the actor from the role, it's a sign of a less than stellar performance.

This is how I see my voice versus the voices of my characters. If the reader can't tell the difference, then I've failed to truly bring my characters to life, which means I've failed the reader. Because how can the reader truly immerse himself in the character's world if the only voice the reader hears—and the only POV the reader can experience that world through--is mine?



  1. Thanks for this post. I never thought about the dichotomy between writer and character voice like this before. I agree character POV is (and should be) stronger. But I wonder if a character can truly be him/herself and if the writer SHOULD get completely out of the way. While the writer does need to get out of the way and let the characters think and live on their own, those characters would be nothing if they didn’t have that specific writer’s idiosyncrasies and secret and latent artistic and personality twists. As William Carlos Williams said, “so much depends.” For me the characters need the writer and the writer needs those specific characters in a harmonious give-and-take relationship.

    M. A. Noeth

  2. Great post! Agents and publishers may say "You can't" because they've seen it done BADLY too many times. But if you can do it well, go for it! Look at Diary of a Wimpy Kid--some might have said there was no market for a book that is too long for a chapter book, too short for a middle grade, and is heavily illustrated but isn't a graphic nove. And yet it's a blockbuster hit, and school libraries can't keep enough copies on the shelf!
    Thanks for the reminder to say "I can" instead of "I can't".

    Ruth Donnelly