Fiction writers use the term “voice” differently than journalists, lawyers, physicians, or plumbers. For us, voice refers to the style an author uses to create books, stories, rants or alibis. Authors combine words, rhythm and diction to reach our readers, and persuade them to keep turning our pages. The term is synonymous with persona, i.e., the characteristic speech and thought patterns used by first-person narrators, or implied authors telling stories in third-person voice. While often difficult to explain in a classroom setting, voice moves mere words on paper to emotional reaction. Readers hear our written voice as thoughtful, casual, relaxed, anxious, angry, fearful, or even drunk. We can expand on the skill by adopting more complex or ornate, maybe even desperate reactions, depending on the genre and emotional state we hope our readers feel.  

Roy Peter Clark urges writers to “tune” their “voice” by reading their stories aloud. He is a national treasure for writers. He says, “Of all effects created by writers, none is more important or elusive than that quality called voice. Good writers, it is said time and time again, want to find their voice. And they want that voice to be authentic, a word that reminds me of author and authority. Mr. Clark’s colleague, Don Fey, put it this way. “Voice is the sum of all the strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.” The central point most writing teachers make about voice is that it reaches the reader through his ears, even when received the message through his eyes.[1] 

For example, John Updike described a character in Rabbit is Rich in this voice. “Webb is the oldest man of their regular foursome, fifty and then some—a lean and thoughtful gentleman in roofing and siding contracting with a calming gravel voice, his long face broken into longitudinal strips by creases and his hazel eyes almost lost under an amber tangle of eyebrows.”[2] You can almost see him just by reading about him.

Barbara Kingsolver, in Flight Behavior, used a very different voice. “A couple ducked in late, slid into the pew next to her, and promptly closed their eyes in prayer, leaving Dellarobia free to scrutinize them. The man wore sporty sunglasses pushed on top of his head as if he’d just hopped out of a convertible. But if that was his wife with him, there was no convertible in the story.”[3] You cannot only see them, you know they have something to hide.

The voice in a biographical novel transforms the lives of real people by including imagined dialogue and incidents that happened but not necessarily exactly the way the novelist presents on paper. Irving Stone, in his biographical novel, “Lust For Life” on the lives of Michelangelo and Sigmund Freud, said, “Dr. Felix Ray, young interne of the hospital of Arles, was a short thickset man with an octagonal head and a weed of black hair shooting up from the top of the octagon. He treated Vincent’s wound, then put him to bed in a cell-like room from which everything had been removed. A flash of pain went across his face. He lifted his hand to where his right ear had once been. Doctor Rey stopped him. You mustn’t touch, he said.”[4]  

Camp fiction writers use a frivolous, playful voice to present stylization and exaggeration in the writing, rather than focus on the work’s intrinsic content or moral sensibility. In Roland Firbank’s campy Caprice, the protagonist writes a letter. “In the gazebo at the extremity of the garden, by the new parterre, Miss Sinquier, in a morning wrapper was waiting for the post. She stirred impatiently. Wretch!—to deliver at the Palace before the Deanery, when the Deanery was as near!”[5]

Writing with willful obscurity is the intentional use of opaque language. This school of writing uses language so difficult, idiosyncratic and obscure it buries understanding forcing the reader’s attention to remain on the language and ignore the story. It’s largely used by metafictionists. They not “modernists,” who prefer to move their readers to become deeply involved in the characters and the writer’s plot. Mr. Joyce wrote on the first page, “The fall  babadalgharagtakamminarronkkonnbronntonnerrronntuonthumtrovarrhounawnskawtoothoodenentehurnuk! of a once wallstrait oldparr is reltaled early in bed and lateron life down through all Christian minestresly.”[6]

These authors explain, define, view, and distinguish “voice” in writing. They give us an ethical framework to assess and evaluate the ethical norms in using “voice” in writing.

  • Roy Peter Clark’s ethical norm is authenticity.
  • John Updike urges clarity.
  • Barbara Kingsolver seeks openness.
  • Irving Stone favors reality.
  • Camp fiction writes use obvious stylization and exaggeration.
  • James Joyce suggested we remain “on” the language and ignore the story.

At the academic level, using voice in writing always raises ethical concerns. The challenge is “how to write ethically while remaining true to the aesthetic imperative, the narrative trajectory, [and] a reader’s requirements . . . In the field of education the answer is straightforward: to write ethically means avoiding plagiarism, and resisting the impulse to make up facts. . . A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.”[7] That said, is knowledge an ethical imperative? Are facts actual? Did the fact you cite actually happen, or did you just read about it? Fact checking facts is not required in political discourse any more than truth is. But it is an ethical imperative for the rest of the world, especially writers.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.

[1] Roy Peter Clark. “Writing Tools—50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” Little Brown & Co. New York, (2006) Tool 26 at p 112.

[2] David Grambs & Ellen S. Levine. “The Describer’s Dictionary” W.W. Norton Company, New York, 2015, at 489.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Laurie Henry, “The Fiction Dictionary” Stoney Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1995, at 39

[5] Ibid, at 43.

[6] Laurie Henry, “The Fiction Dictionary” Stoney Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1995, at 199.