Today’s article is written by Christina Kaye.
How many people are from southern or eastern Kentucky?
How many of you feel like you have a southern accent? Or, better yet, how many of you have been told you have a southern accent?
Well, I’m about to test your southern-ness right here and now. I’m going to give you a few sayings that are common in the south, sometimes specifically Kentucky, and I want to see if you know the meaning behind each saying.
Are you ready?
“My eyeballs are floating.” → I have to pee
“More nervous than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” → extremely nervous
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” → don’t be ungrateful
“She don’t know whether to scratch her watch or wind her butt.” → someone is confused
“He’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.” → extremely tough
“That don’t amount to a hill of beans.” → worth very little
“I bleed blue.” → I’m a true-blue Kentucky Wildcats fan
Then, of course, there are some southern sayings that aren’t quite so cryptic. Such as:
“Well, bless your heart.”
“It’s fixin to storm.”
“I’ma go over yonder.”
“. . . until the cows come home.”
“If I had my druthers . . . ”
“I reckon so . . . ”
“Hold your horses.”
“Heavens to Betsy.”
What do all these sayings have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re sort of silly sounding, that is. They all contribute to our voice as an individual. They make us who we are. Sure, these colloquialisms may not make sense to those who don’t live in the south, but to us southerners, it’s just the way we talk. Anyone who hears us using these sayings will instantly know we’re not from Brooklyn or London or anywhere other than the southern half of the US. The way we talk is only part of what gives each of us a unique voice.
But what exactly do I mean when I refer to voice in fiction? Think of it like a piece of fruit. Say, an orange. On the outside, all oranges look the same, pretty much, right? But then, you peel the outside away and you get this lump of sections that are hopefully soft and full of sweet, fruity juice. But what happens if we were to take a bite of that orange slice we’ve been working to get at for what seems like forever because only a handful of humans can actually do it in one, long peel, right? Anyway, what if you bite into that piece of orange and . . . nothing. There’s no juice. No flavor. No sweetness squishing out. What would you do? You’d probably spit it out. And you definitely would not want to ever try orange again, because what good is a piece of fruit—all full of the promise of juicy sweet goodness—only to be disappointed by its blandness.
That, my friends, is the best way I can think of to explain what voice is to a reader and why it’s so utterly important for your novel to have a distinct, unique voice.
Now, there are two aspects that make up voice: the author’s voice and the characters’ voices.
A writer’s tone, choice of words, selection of subject matter, and even punctuation make up the author’s voice. How an author writes conveys their attitude, personality, and character. The author’s voice is often so distinctive, it’s possible to identify the author by merely reading a selection of their work.
Likewise, every character in your story has an individual way of putting together words, phrases, and ideas. These elements make up a character’s “voice.” Each character possesses a combination of different qualities that make up a single complex personality.
Both the author and the characters’ style and manner of speaking work together to create the story’s voice.
One of the best examples I’ve read lately of a book with clear and distinctive voice—both of the author and of the characters—is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
Owens’s protagonist, Kya, is a young girl who grows up in the marshes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Without giving much away (because you must read this book), she is “schooled” both in books and life by a local boy named Tate as she grows up. Tate is more educated than Kya, and he teaches her everything a young, lonely girl needs to learn. And I’ll leave it at that.
The way Owens paints the setting all around is beautiful and vivid. It played like a movie in my mind. But the way she wrote the narrative, and especially Kya’s dialogue and those of the other southern characters, made this book unputdownable. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially to anyone struggling with adding voice to their story.
Here are some great examples of how some well-known authors added voice to their stories in a highly effective way:
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe is an example of first‑person unreliable narrative voice, which is significantly unknowledgeable, biased, childish, and ignorant, which purposefully tries to deceive the readers. As the story proceeds, readers notice the voice is unusual, characterized by starts and stops. The character directly talks to the readers, showing a highly exaggerated and wrought style. It is obvious that the effectiveness of this story relies on its style, voice, and structure, which reveal the diseased state of mind of the narrator.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the narrative voice makes use of letters and documents to convey the message and reveal the story. It may use multiple persons’ voices, or there could be no narrator at all, as the author may have gathered different documents into a single place to shape the story. In this book, the author employs what’s called epistolary form, in which she uses a sequence of letters to express the voice of her narrator—a scientific explorer, Captain Robert Walton. He attempts to reach the North Pole, where he meets Victor Frankenstein, and then records his experiences and confessions.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of a character’s voice, in which the character Scout narrates the whole story. Though she is an adult, she tells her story from her childhood’s point of view. When she grows older, her language becomes more sophisticated. Scout uses first‑person narrative to create a realistic sense, enabling the audience to notice the child is growing up. Her dialogue allows readers to hear the language of younger Scout. Also, it enables the readers to feel the voice of an adult in her actions and thinking.
How you tell your story is just as important as the words you use. Stephen King once said, “People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”
Authors so often struggle with what to say, they forget that it’s just important to focus on how you say it.
I also think a lot of authors focus so much on writing correctly and eloquently, they miss the mark because then, their prose and even dialogue come out stuffy, formal, and overly polite. I often say this kind of writing is beige. We don’t want to be beige, do we? No. We want our writing to be colorful and rich, and writing with voice can absolutely make that happen. Don’t stress over sounding perfect and polite and highly educated. That’s not what readers want from you. They’re not concerned about your vast vocabulary or your use of big, fancy words. They simply want you to tell them a great story and tell it well.
Your voice is a reflection of who you are. Which, in turn, will reflect your choice of reading. Which will reflect the kind of books you want to write yourself. Which will reflect the kind of readers you attract.
Whatever your natural voice is like, the key is simple: make sure that the natural writing voice you cultivate through practice is a genuine reflection of the way you speak.
Now, I do have a word of caution when writing in a character’s dialect or accent to define the voice of that character. Be careful not to overdo it. Don’t make it so heavy the reader can’t determine what on earth is being said. I had a client once who wrote a book set in New Orleans. Beautifully written book. The setting was perfectly written as were the characters. But there was one Cajun character who was supposed to have a very thick accent. She wrote out every single word he spoke phonetically, which made me, as the reader, stumble and get frustrated. It slowed the pacing so much, if I weren’t her editor, I’d have skipped clean over what he was saying. Either way, I would be lost because she took it too far and I was unable to understand what was being said. I’ve also seen authors do this with vampires who speak in a more Slavic accent. “I vant to suck your blood,” and all that. Or German characters, for example.
Whatever the accent is supposed to be, do not try to write every single word in that accent, even if that’s how the character might sound in real life. Instead, do two things: add dialect and accent to only a few key words in the dialogue, and use your surrounding narrative to let us know how thick the accent is. Maybe say something like, “I couldn’t understand but every other word due to his heavy accent.” That is one way to show the reader the other character’s accent is thick and almost indiscernible without making it so confusing and frustrating for the reader.
As an exercise, I want you to first start a clean document with your narrator’s name at the top. Then, I want you to list some key attributes and characteristics they possess. How old are they? What gender/race/religion? Where are they from? Does that region have a distinct dialect? Maybe even write down some colloquialisms like we talked about at the beginning of this session. If you’re not sure, or if you’re not from this region, do some research. There are plenty of websites dedicated to this exact issue.
After you’ve made this document and saved it, put it aside. Then I want you to open your manuscript and start reading from the beginning. Now that we’ve talked about what makes a story’s voice unique and unforgettable, ask yourself if your story has a unique voice. Does it remind you of biting into a sweet, juicy slice of orange? If not, no worries. You can fix this without too much work. Simply go through line by line when doing your edits or revisions and find places here and there where you can add voice, both in your prose and in your characters’ dialogue.
And my final, parting piece of advice to you is to also do some research on successful authors who have written stories set in the same regions your novel is set in, or authors who generally rock at voice in fiction (like Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Philippa Gregory, and more) and devour as much of their writing as you can. Especially if it happens to be in the same genre you’re writing in. Make notes. Highlight. Underline. Mark pages. Doing this will absolutely help you not only discern what makes for great voice in fiction, but it will also imprint this practice in your brain to the point it will one day just become a natural part of your writing journey.