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Personality versus Voice – What’s the difference?

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For anyone attending writers’ conferences over the past year, especially those catering to people writing books for children or teenagers, one line seemed to ring out from every editor and agent’s lips:

“Voice matters.”

Voice, you say? What is voice? Is that not who my character is? His or her temperament, talking style, etc. etc.?

Nope. Sorry.

Actually, I really like the definition of “Voice” at Grammar Girl by Julia Wildhaber (I like a lot of things about Grammar Girl, BTW):

“Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work.” (see more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/understanding-voice-and-tone-in-writing#sthash.dQy6owPC.dpuf)

Some of you are still giving me the pursed-lip look. All right. Let’s dive in a little more.

You know how you’ve seen a piece of artwork in a store, and it’s super nice, and you’re like, “Hey, that is a pretty picture I could hang in my house.” Now, you walk into an art museum—say MOMA—and you spot a piece by Kerry James Marshall called Untitled (Club Scene.) And you say, “Um, my house is not worthy of such an interesting piece. How does an artist even think to look at the world that way?”

That’s voice.

Or, you have someone in your church choir (or whatever choir) who has a really good voice, and this person does a great rendition of Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful.” But then you hear Aguilera sing it in concert (which I have), and you’re like, “Holy macaroni, Batman.”

That’s voice.

Universal writing examples of voice, you ask? Harry Potter is a quiet, brave, and sometimes defiant boy. The Harry Potter books are enchanting, magical, and engagingly dark in narration. Katniss Everdeen is taciturn, courageous, and cunning. Hunger Games is urgent and cool-tempered in first-person narration.

However, some people might argue that the concept and characters made those two powerhouse book series what they are. For the work of a writer to rise above all the great concepts, cool characters, and style of other excellent writers out there…the “specialness” of voice is the only way to survive.

I recently read Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson. It wasn’t my favorite Peter Pan spinoff…but, let me tell you something about this book. The writing feels unique, like a painting I haven’t seen before. Something pulls me into the picture it paints, to the words arranged in ways that make me think of ordinary things from a different angle. The narrator was Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily’s personality was harsh and reserved—ungirlish, even. But the narration, concept, word usage, and plot of the novel all worked together to create a piece of art I couldn’t put down.

That’s voice.

I can’t give you a magic formula (if I had it, I’d be rich;). The thing is, you know a distinct voice when you read it. It pulls on you, just as a singer or artist at the top of their game has something just a little different to offer.

Voice is unique to you. It’s unique to your characters. It’s a unique writing style that can build a career.

And when you do hit voice on its head, you’ll be writing me a thank you note, because you will have landed an agent or a book contract.

You’re welcome.

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