Style and Voice

The word “style” typically refers to the author’s writing style, while “voice” describes how the point-of-view character communicates to the reader. They are sometimes used interchangeably, and there is some overlap, so that’s why they’re in the same article.

Style

Let’s tackle style first since it’s simpler. Is your prose florid and poetic and circumspect, or is it short and choppy and direct? Do you write long paragraphs and sentences, or short ones? Big words or simple words? Lots of metaphor or not? Do you act as a narrator to your reader, or go deep into a point of view and not get in between the reader and the character? What kinds of stories and themes do you usually write about? Are there commonalities between your characters and plots across your works? Are you a clean, G-rated author or do you write adult themes?

All of those things, and anything else that differentiates your stories from those of other authors, are what make up your style.

Voice

Moving on to Voice, which arises from the point of view character in your story. Voice is built up from that character’s dialogue (sentence structure, word choice, accents, catch phrases), life outlook (religious vs. secular, optimistic vs. pessimistic, etc.), and ultimately backstory (social class, education level, occupation, past trauma, and so forth).

Character voice arises from all the things that make one person different from another person, which are ultimately driven by the character’s life experience.

How do you create a character voice? By studying real people (and good characters in stories).
What do they believe about the world? Is it fair? Is it just? Is science how we improve our lives, or is it religion/faith or something else? Are they educated? Do they show it? How do they react to new things, with curiosity or fear? Do they love freedom, or do they want to control people? Do they say one and do the other? What are their soft spots (animals, kids, old movies, teddy bears, etc)? What are they uncompromising about? What made them this way? Are they racist, sexist, homophobic? Or are they open minded? Why? What are their hobbies? What do they love? What do they hate? Do they tend to have strong opinions, or are they easily swayed into believing whatever?

All these things and more shape how your character reacts to the world and to events in the story, and those reactions determine their thoughts, feelings, speech, and decisions/actions, and how they tell their own story—which is where character voice comes through.

When you write deep point of view, you write it through the character, like you’re looking at the world through their eyes, but more importantly, through all those filters in their mind.

If you’re not writing deep point of view (that is, omniscient or cinematic), their voice still going to affect their actions and dialogue, even if you don’t have access to their thoughts.

Here’s an exercise for working on voice. Pick some people you know personally, and pick people that are as different as possible. Two from your family, two from school, two from your job, club, sports team, etc. Now figure out what makes them tick (outlook on life, backstory, etc. listed above) and write down some notes.

Now, take those different people and put each one of them in the same story, such as your favorite book or movie. Imagine how different the story would have been with your Grandpa as the protagonist in The Hobbit, versus your cousin, your best friend, your coach—how different their character thoughts, speech, decisions, and actions would all be, and how different the story would be from their point of view. That’s their voice.

You often hear publishers say “we’re looking for a fresh voice”, which often means multiple things. First, we’re looking for authors who can write character voice well, which is required to get published. Second, we don’t want a carbon copy of another famous character. We have enough Harry Potters and Katniss Everdeens. Third, we want a character voice that has mass appeal so we can sell books, so make your character marketable (that is, they have strength of will and are enjoyable to read about, and not some unsympathetic psycho or sad sack or jerk).

How complex and layered can you make your character’s voice? I think you have to be very careful with changing it too much during a story, especially if you write for younger audiences or lower reading levels. People growing up on TV and movies and low-grade fiction generly expect the characters to have stable, even archetypal moods and not change much in the story (think of any superhero movie, for example). You also have to be careful not to linger too long in negative moods (e.g. whining, cruelty) for your protagonists and vice versa with antagonists, lest you make your protagonist unsympathetic and your antagonist sympathetic.

Hopefully that helps clear up the differences between style and voice, and how voice is linked to point of view. Good luck!