I. What is Voice?
In literature, the voice expresses the narrator or author’s emotions, attitude, tone and point of view through artful, well thought out use of word choice and diction. A voice may be formal or informal; serious or lighthearted; positive or negative; persuasive or argumentative; comical or depressed; witty or straightforward; objective or subjective—truly, voice can reflect any and all feelings and perspectives. A work’s voice directly contributes to its tone and mood; helping the writer create the desired effect he wants his words to have on readers.
A piece of literature’s voice is one of its most defining and important features and can completely change the way a story is read and received. For example, you could tell the same story in two ways; on version through a very positive narrator, and the other through a very negative narrator, and the results would be very, very different. Likewise, you could have two different authors or narrators addressing the same subject—the voice will vary depending on their feelings about that subject, which will in turn affect the way it is presented.
Last, it’s important to distinguish between literary voice as described above, and the sound of someone’s physical voice. The sound of someone’s voice is just a physical characteristic, whereas a literary voice is a part of writing and storytelling.
II. Examples of Voice
Here are some examples of greetings from different voices:
- Good day, m’lady
- Good day, madame
- Greetings, sir
- What’s up, dude?
- Hey, bro!
- Hello there
- Sir, ma’am
- Hey you!
- ‘Ello gov’na
- G’day, mate
Each greeting has the same basic meaning but is expressed in a completely different voice. Several factors contribute to each voice—for example, some are formal while some are informal; some show an accent; some use slang; and some even use different languages.
Now, read these two sentences:
The sun is a glorious glowing orb of golden heat and light, giving life to everything it touches.
The sun is a flaming ball of fire and blinding light, burning anything that’s under its rays for too long.
The voice of the first sentence is pleasant and appreciative, expressing that the sun is a wonderful thing. The second’s voice carries the opposite attitude; expressing that the sun is harsh and damaging. The two distinct voices can influence how we perceive the sun.
III. Types of Voice
Voice is determined by either the person telling the story (the narrator) or the person writing the story (the author), and can be further defined by the voices of characters in a story. Basically, it’s important to remember that a work’s voice is not always reflective of the author’s own opinions or attitudes.
a. Narrator’s voice
The narrator’s voice expresses the attitude of the person who is actually directly telling us the story. It is partially determined by the narrator’s role in the story (narrative style)—whether the narrator is part of the story or telling it from an outside perspective obviously affects his attitude and the way he’ll express himself. For instance, a first person narrator (a character in the story narrating from their point of view, using I, me and we) may be more invested in what happens than a third objective person narrator (a narrator who is not a character in the story and doesn’t have a stake in what’s happening). But from whatever point of view, the narrator is the one who readers hear the story from, and so his voice is what influences the entire way readers experience the work.
b. Author’s voice
The author’s voice directly reflects the attitude of the author himself. Even when a work has a narrator, an author’s voice can certainly come through. That said, an author’s voice tends to be most prominent in nonfiction, where a writer is often directly expressing his own knowledge and opinion. News sources provide great examples of authors’ voices—though the news should really be neutral, it often clearly shows the voice of the network or the writer. For instance, many would say that Fox News has a conservative voice and that CBS has a more liberal voice.
c. Character Voices
An author may also choose to show the voices of characters in addition to the voice of a third person narrator, or the narrator may be a character within the story. So, with this technique, readers are able to understand the attitudes of those who are direct part of the story. Sometimes, an author may tell a story from the perspectives of several characters, using multiple voices that approach the same events with different attitudes.
IV. Importance of Voice
As mentioned above, the voice is an essential part of the way a story or piece of writing is delivered. Works of literature need voices to help them stand out in style and deliver stories and content in the most effective way possible.
V. Examples of Voice in Literature
In Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted we get to experience a story from a very unique perspective—that of the author, who is actually writing about her time as a patient in psychiatric hospital. The voice of the story is unique in that it reflects the author’s attitude about the events, but the author is also the real-life protagonist of the story. Here, Susanna recounts her appointment with a psychiatrist:
“You need a rest,” he announced.
I did need a rest, particularly since I’d gotten up so early that morning in order to see this doctor, who lived out in the suburbs. I’d changed trains twice. And I would have to retrace my steps to get to my job. Just thinking of it made me tired.
“Don’t you think?” He was still standing in front of me.
“Don’t you think you need a rest?”
Here, Susanna’s voice is almost misleading to the audience—in fact, she is expressing that she thinks she needs a rest because she had a long morning. But knowing it is a psychiatrist asking her, we know that Susanna is having psychological issues, and that the rest he speaks of is actually a rest in a psychiatric facility.
One of the kookiest voices in literature comes from Dr. Seuss, known for his unruly rhyme patterns, made up words and overall silly voice. In his beloved classic The Cat in the Hat, Doctor Seuss tells his story with three voices—the children, the fish, and the Cat in the Hat. Here are two stanzas, one showing the fish’s voice, one showing the Cat’s:
our fish said, ‘no! no!
make that cat go away!
tell that cat in the hat
you do NOT want to play.
he should not be here.
he should not be about.
he should not be here
when your mother is out!’
‘now! now! have no fear.
have no fear!’ said the cat.
‘my tricks are not bad,’
said the cat in the hat.
‘why, we can have
lots of good fun, if you wish,
with a game that i call
up-up-up with a fish!’
On top of the author’s overall whimsical voice, we get to hear from two of the characters, who though speaking to the same issue, are very different and express opposite attitudes. The first voice is that of the fish, who is stern and serious, warning the children that they should not play with the Cat; the second is that of the Cat; lighthearted and dismissive, telling everyone not to worry and that they should definitely play with him. Dr Seuss uses these two distinct voices to help show the difficult situation the kids are in—one voice says play, the other says don’t!
VI. Examples in Pop Culture
In the 2015 film Room, a mother and her five year old child are prisoners inside their captor’s shed. Ma, the mother, has been there for seven years, while Jack, her son, has never left ‘Room’—Ma has taught Jack that Room is the whole world, and there’s nothing outside of it. Throughout the film, we get to hear some of Jack’s explanations about life in Room:
Here, you can see Ma depressed in bed while hearing Jack speak about room. His voice (his literary voice, not the literal sound of his voice) reflects his surprisingly positive perspective on the world. Through Jack’s commentary we understand how Ma has been able to endure this terrible situation—Jack doesn’t know any other home, and sees the best in Room. Jack sees the good in the things where we might see problems, like a bent spoon and a toilet in the centre of a home. His innocent voice is what makes the film slightly less painful.
George R.R. Martin is well known for storytelling through multiple characters and voices in his novels, and the same goes when he adapts the stories for the TV series Game of Thrones. Voice can be harder to express on screen, but Game of Thrones still finds a way to replicate what Martin does on the page. For instance, this clip shows us the voices of several groups of characters during a tragic event:
Through different perspectives during these infamous events of the Red Wedding, we experience the voice of vengeance from Lord Frey (who leads the massacre), the voice of desperation from the Starks as they are killed one by one (the current victims), the voices of arrogance from the knights who kill the wolf, and the voice of hopelessness from Arya (who sees what’s happening from the outside), and the voice of reason from the Hound (who takes Arya away).
In the end, it’s always important to think about the voice of your writing. It determines so much of how a story works, from the way it is told to how the reader understands and feels about the characters and events. The voice is what determines a work’s mood and tone, and ultimately what distinguishes one story or piece of writing from the next!
VIII. Related Terms
A narrator is the person telling the story. In literature, the voice is not the narrator himself, but rather every narrator has a voice.
The mood of a story is the overall feeling that it gives off to its readers. A story’s voice helps contribute to its mood.