There are a lot of skills a fiction writer needs to master. You have to learn to create characters, to build scenes, and to plot. But there's another quality that defines engaging fiction that is far more difficult to learn or even to define, and that's voice.
Think about your favorite books. Odds are, when you remember your favorite passages from the book, you don't remember them as letters on the page. Instead, you remember them as audible words.
Authors, more than any other artist, must attempt to trigger synesthesia in their audience. Writers place symbols onto paper, which the reader experiences visually. But, when he really engages the reader, he creates the illusion that there's a speaker inside the reader's head narrating the tale--the reader hears the story in his mind's ear. Complicating this further, the auditory experience goes on to trigger sights, smells, tastes and textures.
Evoking this sensation of an unseen speaker isn't easy. You probably don't experience the sensation of "voice" when you're scanning your credit card statements or reading about a zoning board meeting in your local newspaper. It emerges in prose through a combination of subtle elements. A good narrative voice will have a distinctive pace and vocabulary.
Voice doesn't neccessary require that a character narrate the tale, though many books do rely on first person narration, for example Huckleberry Finn and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But, it can be just as effective to have a narrator that isn't part of the story at all. The voice becomes that of the author, or even that of the book; think of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Winesburg, Ohio. In these books, an unknown narrator is able to report events with a mix of objectivity and slanted commentary.
First and third person narration follow a slightly different path to trigger the synesthesia required for voice. With first person, the narrator is plainly another human being (or alien, or talking dog, or whatever). You get the presumption of a narrative voice the first time the word "I" appears in the tale. The tricky part of first person, I think, is that once you establish that a human is telling the story, it's easy for the voice to feel false and unnatural. We know what a real person telling a real story sounds like, and unfortunately what constitutes "real" is sometimes in conflict with other needs of story telling. For instance, a real person might say, "I went to the grocery store and saw my old college roommate, Ken." But an author is going to want to try to invoke senses and build a scene. Something sounds off about, "I was standing in the produce section, surrounded by bright yellow bananas, awash in the scent of ripe strawberries, hefting a chilled watermelon into my cart when I spotted a face that had once been familiar to me. It was Ken, my former college roommate, who stands six feet two and has blonde hair and wears glasses..." Ugg.
Another difficulty of first person narration is that you do have to work within the confines of your narrator's limits. Once Mark Twain started writing Huckleberry Finn in the voice of an uneducated kid, he couldn't switch gears in the middle of a scene and have Huck start quoting Shakespeare, even if some quote by the bard would have been appropriate to the moment.
With third person, the story can escape the limits imposed by the pretense that an actual character is relaying the story. But, it sometimes takes the voice longer to emerge, since the reader isn't immediately certain who is speaking. A character? The author? Some bodiless, omniscient entity? The book itself?
I don't know a quick and easy short cut to learning the art of voice. My early stories and novels completely lacked any sensation of voice. I think (hope!) that most of my writing today does have this elusive quality. Part of this is just down to practice. You have to write a lot of clunky prose, just like a person who wants to play piano has to play a lot of scales. But, at some point, a pianist makes a nearly mystical transition from playing notes to playing music. The same thing happens for an author. One day you're just writing words and arranging them in sentences and paragraphs, then, suddenly, the words come to life, and you aren't so much writing your story as you are transcribing it as you listen to the narration in your own head.
The one trick that is vital for me is that, even with novels, I always read my work out loud before I declare it finished. When words are just symbols on a page, you can wind up with phrases that are perfectly correct, yet still don't sound right when you say them out loud. It's also easy to build overly long sentences. Most narration will sound more natural if one sentence doesn't exceed the span of one breath.
It is a lot of work to read a novel back to yourself, but so what? People wouldn't pay you for the work if it was too easy. And if it's the step you need to take to perfect the novel's voice, it's the best investment of creative time you can make.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!