I’ve written before about using different voices depending on genre. I don’t do it purposely; it just seems to happen. Maybe writing a romance puts me in one mood, softening the voice, while writing an action story puts me in another and changes the voice to harder, more direct. As an unapologetic pantser, I let it develop however it wants. But lately, I’ve also realized that my voice changes with the gender and/or personality of my protagonist.
I switch protagonists as easily as I switch genres. I never know what I’m going to write next until it hits me, and I never know if my protag is going to be male or female. It’s whatever the story demands. In January of this year, I released a book in which most of the main characters were women. It’s a contemporary story, so the writing is more direct than a historical romance might warrant, but it’s still a woman’s story and it unfolds slowly, almost delicately. I’ve noticed that my sentences tended to be a little longer, a little more descriptive, more thoughtful. I find that the writing style mirrors the characters, creating a “habitat” of sorts that is congruent with the characters’ personalities.
Then the next idea that grabbed hold of me was completely different: a time travel story with a male protagonist who gets flung into the old west. I found my writing to be much more direct, as in fewer adjectives and adverbs. My sentence structure changed dramatically; shorter sentences seemed to fit the story and the character better than long ones. And I used a lot more fragments.
Now that I’m thinking about this, it seems to be a no-brainer. If I were writing a cynical, hard-bitten police detective, I certainly would not write him in flowery prose. His dialog, and yes, even the narrative, would most likely be short bursts of action, not slow-paced meanderings. If I were writing about a pensive old woman who was waxing nostalgic about her life and loves lost, I would probably write in a more flowing manner, dreamy and rosy-colored. As I said, I never really planned this, it just happened, but now that I’m analyzing it more, I see it’s absolutely appropriate, maybe even necessary. So it’s gotten me to thinking, what are the different aspects of a story that demand a distinct and congruent voice?
1. Genre — certainly the overarching consideration. I suspect that readers of any given genre expect a certain voice: descriptive and sensual for romance, fast-paced for thrillers, direct for police procedurals, journalistic reporting for non-fiction, etc.
2. Gender — the next most important aspect, both in terms of the protagonist and/or the major characters, and in terms of the reader.
3. Personality — before you tar and feather me about stereotyping genders, consider the non-traditional: a tough, cynical woman or a sensitive, soft-spoken man. And of course this is all a matter of degree, not kind; if our characters are complex, they can be hard one minute and soft the next.
So the real task, as I see it, is to bring all this into one cohesive whole, and we do that by the voice we use. I believe the voice can/should (1) emphasize and embody the character and genre and (2) pull everything about the book — characters, genre, story, feel — together into one homogenous package. If it’s all working together, all the aspects of the book should support and complement each other seamlessly. If it’s not, then the reader may feel some disconnect there, some discordance that could be off-putting or downright frustrating. Can you imagine a police procedural written in the manner of a bodice-ripper romance? Or a YA story written with the gritty, cynical voice of a murder mystery?
I have often written about the fact that I want my words to be practically transparent to the reader. I want the reader to glide along on the rails of my words, seeing the images in their minds rather than the words on the paper. If every part of the story works together, that’s exactly how it should feel to the reader. Effortless. Congruent. So congruent that you don’t even see it. You just fall into the story and ride along.