If I put you in a dark room with a lone chair in the middle, made you close your eyes and just listen to random people speak, you could tell me a ton of information without much effort: the sex of the speaker, their rough level of education, the region they’re from, the mood they’re in, where they are in relation to you, and lots more.
Aside from touch, our voice is one of the only ways we can connect to another person; the sound waves of our speech bouncing and rebounding, pooling in their ears where they can physically process the meaning of the message. We connect a lot of emotions and meaning to a voice and revere its power through things like plays and songs.
Some voices are soft and gentle, like your mother waking you up for your first day of elementary school. Other voices are harsh and cruel; an angry drill instructor, an unscrupulous calculus teacher, a dictator with a tenuous grasp on his rule. And yet some are irreverent and silly, some spiked and drunken, some magical and lilting and full of poetic grace.
A writer’s voice is the same a spoken one; it is personality on the page, how you sound to your reader. When you write something, it’s like a text recording of your voice, packaged up on pages, sent direct-download to the media player in your reader’s brain.
The term, “voice,” gets throw around a lot: “you need to work on your voice,” or “your voice could be stronger here,” or “her voice is so clear and consistent in this piece!” But what is a writer’s voice? How can it be defined and caught and kept in a jar of formaldehyde for dissection and study?
An oversimplified answer is that your voice is a combination of your day-to-day personality, your diction, your attitude towards the subject (or tone), and most importantly, metaphor.
We all know what a metaphor is, right? A comparison of one thing to another, tangentially disparate thing in an attempt to create an image or elicit an emotion or make someone laugh. They use imagery and creative language to cause your reader to create a visual comparison in their mind like an LCD monitor with a slide show of your story. Did you picture a TV in someone’s head just now?
Just in case you’re not familiar with metaphor, here’s one: “He wrote with the abandon of a drunk sea captain who knew that this night, in this storm, the sea would finally drag him home.”
Yay, metaphor: making writing and language more than just communication since 600 AD.
But what makes metaphor special, other than it’s ability to conjure images better than Dumbledore, Gandalf, Merlin, and uh…Willow?… combined?
Metaphor is Unique to You
I’m going to give you a present. It’s a big brown burlap bag full of potential metaphors. All yours. For free. You can thank me later.
When you go to create an image via metaphor, you’re bringing all of your collective knowledge about life with it. You have forged connections between ideas in your brain that are as unique as your fingerprint or the first dainty flake of an incoming blizzard. When you compose a metaphor – a good, strong, bold metaphor – there is a very good chance that nothing like it exists anywhere else in the written world. It sounds crazy, but that’s the power of the sprawling, near-infinite universe of English.
Do you ever notice yourself, mid-story or essay, making very thematically similar comparisons? I for one am guilty of writing a lot of metaphors about battle, chivalry, and ancient lore. That’s because those are the things I like, the things I’ve exposed myself to over years and years of reading and writing and pop culture. My metaphors are Tolkien and George R. R. Martin and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. They are SyFy channel and Star Wars and a huge unsorted bin of Lego bricks.
Food writers may make a lot of cooking and eating metaphors, relying on smell and taste to create their imagery. Sport writers may use a lot of athletic and physical terminology. How you create a comparison is going to be built, nay forged, from what you do in life and what has slowly seeped into the crevices of your brain, consciously and subconsciously.
And this is the greatest thing ever for you as a writer. It gives you license to embrace all that weird, counter-culture stuff you’ve been so greedily imbibing, an absolutely acceptable (probably even encouraged) environment to write quite literally, “what you know.”
The more unique the connections you’ve made between ideas, the more vivid and confident your imagery, the more your voice will boom out from the flat ink of the page, invade your reader’s head and keep them thinking about your work long after they’ve closed the book.
So go, be free, play word and idea association with yourself like a raving vagrant. Take chances are trust in your own skill that the images you create will work. If they don’t, if your imagination ran a bit too wild-pony-on-the-loose, don’t worry. You can always fix them in edit.
Better to have written a wild, never-before read dream than a boring, expected plunker.