As D.W. Wilson noted in The White Review,
Voice is not talking. In fact that makes no sense – the written word being an inherently silent medium. We say we like the sound of a writer’s voice, but this is purely metaphorical, this is hand-waving, this is gross simplification of the highest order. What we actually like is some analogue of sound in a writer’s voice, some approximation of how the voice-as-written represents the voice-as-spoken.
Voice in fiction is so elusive that it’s as difficult to define as to release. But every novelist must grapple with it, because “if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story” (Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic).
Like sinful chocolate or cheese, satisfying complex voice teases and fulfills, begins as one flavor and ends with another. That can’t happen with a simplistic taste or sound. Instead, it’s an immersion in sensation: the result seems as original as it is familiar.
The source of this rich stuff is a combination of elements: innovation plus tradition, inventive plus archetypal, subjective and socio-political, and not just dramatic or poetic or side-splittingly hilarious, but the magic of seamlessly interweaving those.
Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall call their book Finding Your Writers’ Voice. This implies that it must be lost, so you must you find it. But how can you with that “must” daring you to screw up? Threatening not only humiliation, but the consequences of lacking the fresh and innovative sound that every agent, publisher, editor, and reader seeks? Voice synthesizes “must” and “can.”
In fiction, great voices suggest not one singer with a guitar, but an entire band or orchestra. How do you avoid sounding like a one-note wonder?
How do you sound when you’re really yourself? Uncensored, and thus possibly whiney or arrogant or meticulous or—the person no one else can earth can be. This fosters sound enhancing language while imagery enhances meaning. It comes from going deep inside yourself while remembering that you’re not doing this just for yourself:
The issue in most manuscripts, then, is not whether the author has a voice but whether they are using it to maximum effect. Does the language of the novel light it up? Does the story stab our hearts? Does its passion grip us? Do we see the world in new ways? – Don Maass
“The individual voice is the communal voice,” Joyce Carol Oates reminds. Want to be so much yourself that you write only for yourself? Fine, just don’t ask anyone else to read it.