Writing with Congruent Voice

male female character voices restroom-304986_960_720I’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.

Lots more.

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.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

12 thoughts on “Writing with Congruent Voice”

    1. I’ve just really noticed it this year, since I’ve written both male and female protagonists in a short amount of time, and the voice of the books ends up being very different.

  1. While reading this article about writing with congruent voice, and your portrayal of characters according to genre and personality, it sounded to me like you could also have been talking about actors and the different methods of acting. I thought, yes, acting – isn’t that what novelists do when writing their characters’ speech, demeanor, reactions, and emotions? They’re playing the part of each character in their minds, delving deeper and deeper to make the character as authentic as possible on the page. Or stage.

    1. Good extrapolation, Candace. I think you’re right. I’ve realized that although I have a list of plot points where the story will twist and turn, how I get there is decided by the characters: how they think, how they act, how they respond. I do think it’s very similar to method acting, getting inside their heads and just doing what they do. Good point. Thanks for adding that.

  2. Incongruent voice might lend itself to a hybridized genre. Otherwise, if you are switching POV characters it’s necessary to perfect distinctive characterization.

    1. Interestingly enough, the book I just finished a few weeks ago switches from male to female POV with each chapter, and I noticed the change in the voice as well. Because this is a back-and-forth between just the two characters, it’s a very distinctive change, at least to me. The words used, the pacing, the description, all change with the character, so yes, I agree with what you’re saying. The idea of incongruent voice feels weird to me. I don’t know if I’d be happy writing with that.

  3. I envy those of you who can do this. Perhaps I’m tone-deaf, but I notice little difference in the speech of the women I know and the men. I’ve listened closely in conversations, and still cannot differentiate. What am I missing?

    1. I wonder if the difference might be greater in the thoughts behind the words than the words themselves, in other words, in the whole POV thing. You might read a romance novel, then read a police procedural and see if you still feel that way.

  4. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t read romance. Mostly, I read mystery and thriller, and write mystery. I do read some mainstream fiction, though. I’m told men interrupt more, are less tentative (rarely saying “I think” or “maybe,”), and use shorter sentences, but much of that is true of stronger women protagonists, too. One of my critiquers told me I needed my men to sound more like men, but none of it was through their POV, so all I could use was their words, and apparently what I did was not enough.

    1. It might be worthwhile to have your critiquer show you an example of what s/he considers more manly dialog. However, if you normally read mystery and thriller, I’d expect you to have a pretty good grasp of the genre.

  5. Good suggestion. I’ll try that with her next critique–have her show me how she’d write it. Thanks.

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