What Voice Means in Writing

The Difference Between Author Voice and Narrator's Voice

Little girl reading book to teddy bears in fort
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In fiction writing, the term "voice" has two different meanings. The author's voice refers to a writer's style, the quality that makes their writing unique. A character's voice is the speech and thought patterns of characters in a narrative. The latter voice is one of the most vital elements of a story for readers of fiction.

The Author's Voice: A Writer's Unique Identifier

A writer's tone, choice of words, selection of subject matter, and even punctuation make up the authorial voice. How an author writes conveys their attitude, personality, and character. The author's voice is often so distinctive that it's possible to identify the author by merely reading a selection of their work. Hunter S. Thompson is perhaps one of the best examples of this. His influential, inimitable "gonzo" style has been emulated over the years by countless writers.

Character Voice: Reflecting a Person's Persona

Every character has an individual way of putting together words, phrases, and ideas. These elements make up a person's "voice." Some people are authoritative, while others are pompous, funny, chatty, or warm. Whatever the case, everybody possesses a combination of different qualities that make up a single complex personality.

There are many great examples of authors creating compelling character voices in fiction writing. With Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye" and Scout Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee created iconic figures that set the scenes vividly with evocative descriptions, observations, and dialogue.

Perhaps the most colorful instance of character voice comes from Charles Dickens in his classic novel "David Copperfield." In addition to being a master of narrative voice, Dickens is highly regarded for his ability to create memorable character voices. One of his most famous characters was Uriah Heep. Heep was a nasty character who called himself "'umble" (humble). But while he pretended to be humble and unambitious, he had a scheme in mind for bettering himself:

"'When I was quite a young boy,' said Uriah, 'I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning, and says I, "Hard hard!" When you offered to teach me Latin, I knew better. "People like to be above you," says father, "keep yourself down." I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I've got a little power!'"

How Character Voice and Narrator's Voice Shape a Story

Both the character's voice and the narrator's voice drive a story in fiction. When the character's voice narrates, it uses first-person pronouns and tells the story from the protagonist perspective.

Although the narrator voice likewise sets the scenes, it carves out the different characters' identities and provides contextual insights and background as the narrative unfolds from different third-person perspectives. Character voices include:

  • First-Person (Character Voice): When narrating with a first-person character voice, an author animates a story from the perspective of a primary character. Everything that unfolds with the story—the scene-setting, dialogue, interactions, observations, and reactions—reflects the protagonist's persona and is seen from their perspective.
  • Third-Person Limited: This narration choice is similar to first-person in that it centers on a particular character and frames the story from their perspective, sharing their thoughts, observations, and emotions. Rather than using first-person pronouns, however, it uses "he," "she," and "they." This narrator can move back and forth between characters in subsequent chapters but can only provide the perspective of that particular character. The actions and interactions of peripheral characters are depicted, but their thoughts, observations, or emotions are not fleshed out from their perspective which makes this narrative voice limiting.
  • Third-Person Omniscient: Third-person omniscient has the attributes of third-person limited, but the range is broader. This narration method can deal with more than one character at a time. Delving into the character profiles of each figure, the narrator knows what they're thinking about, what emotions they're experiencing, and how they're going to react and can convey that with the same depth as a protagonist in a first-person narrative. By highlighting the outlooks of multiple characters, the third-person omniscient perspective can offer greater insight and context to readers while providing a wider lens to see the whole story.