Use a voice that’s appropriate to your genre

If, like every good writer, you are reading a lot in your genre, you should have a good feel for what kind of voice is typical. But good writers also read widely. If you have done so, especially if you’ve read a lot of the classics, an “antique” voice can work its way into modern fiction, and you may run into trouble.

The narrative voice is appropriate for the genre and the target audience.

One of the more common errors I see along these lines is novice writers who are fond of Dickens or Tolstoy or Tolkien and try to emulate that lofty style, with its formality, verbosity, and grandiloquence. But this is probably not the way you normally speak, and it’s probably not the way you write if you’re writing in your diary or penning a letter to your mom. You are putting on an inauthentic “author” voice. Modern readers can easily spot that, and the younger your readers are, the less tolerance they have for a lack of authenticity.

voice actor
Photo © Elnur • Fotolia

Furthermore, because this is not your authentic voice, unless you are a very experienced writer, you are likely to slip up. So I see passages like this one:

The guard presently replaced his blunderbuss in his arm-chest, and, having ascertained that its contents were unassailable, and having looked to the supplementary pistols that he concealed in his cummerbund, examined a smaller chest beneath his seat, inside were some tools and a couple torches.

Now I have, for purposes of exercise, mangled a bit of Dickens. You may not see the errors, but as a copyeditor, I do. First, some of the thesaurus words are just silly, particularly “cummerbund.” Then at the end that lovely long sentence breaks down into a pathetic comma splice and a casualism.*

While it’s true that any writer can fall victim to the comma splice, in my experience these kinds of errors are made more often by writers who are trying to imitate what they think great writing ought to sound like instead of writing in a style that is natural and authentic to them. One can only sustain this pretense for so long before it crumbles and the real you shows up.

This isn’t to say you should write exactly like everyone else in your genre. In any given genre, there will be a wide range. Within mystery fiction, for example, there are voices as different as Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie. Within speculative you have JRR Tolkien and Douglas Adams. So readers will accept a broad range of voices. The point is to find your own unique voice, and then ensure that it fits within the expectations of the readers of your chosen genre.

* In Dickens’s original, the comma after “seat” is followed by “in which,” making the balance a dependent clause rather than a splice (the connecting of two independent clauses with only a comma but no conjunction). “Couple” without “of” is the casualism. Here is the original, which is from the end of Chapter 2 of A Tale of Two Cities:

The guard soon replaced his blunderbuss in his arm-chest, and, having looked to the rest of its contents, and having looked to the supplementary pistols that he wore in his belt, looked to a smaller chest beneath his seat, in which there were a few smith’s tools, a couple of torches, and a tinder-box.

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