The Wrong Voice or Just Too Much Voice?


That’s the word that has been coming out of the mouths of my critique partners lately. No, not about me, although I’m sure there are times they’ve been tempted. But it’s Charlie, my hero, about whom they’ve been using it. The hero of my MG novel. Charlie’s “petulant.” He pouts. He kind of makes it all about him.

This is so not what you want to hear about your hero.

Except, you know, it is, because if you don’t hear it, you can’t do anything about it. The writer’s critique mantra, right?

So I heard it, and I listened, and I’ve been thinking. And, mostly, honestly, what I’ve been thinking is, “stupid voice.” As a reader, I love voice. Voice puts the magic into a book for me–you can give me a great plot, you can give me funny dialogue, you can give me characters I care about who have something to lose. And I’ll love you for all of them. But voice…you will woo me and never lose me with a strong, distinct, gorgeous voice.

As a writer, I struggle with it. Over and over and over. Not so much on my picture books, or maybe I just haven’t recognized that struggle yet, but in my novels, oh, yeah. When I get it to work (when other people say, “I love the voice,”), I couldn’t tell you what I’ve done to get there. Which is only the littlest bit frustrating.

But I keep trying. So I heard “petulant.” And I tried to get myself to think beyond “stupid voice.” I thought about the MG books I love that do have great voices, and I thought about how those authors succeed at pulling me into their heroes’ thoughts and feelings without letting those heroes whine. I got close to sitting down again with The Wednesay Wars and Okay for Now (never a chore!) and seeing if I could figure out how Gary D. Schmidt does it.

And then I realized that the plan I was contemplating was actually to sit down and plot a few scenes of Schmidt’s. Plot? But I was struggling with voice. Why was I thinking about plot? I’m still not sure when/why my brain made that leap, and I’m still not sure it was the leap I needed it to make. But I realized I was thinking about all the things Schmidt packs into one scene, all the actions that provoke and evoke his hero’s thoughts and emotions. And I was thinking about how many more things Schmidt put into any one scene than I’ve been doing.

Am I just spending too much time in Charlie’s mind? Am I giving him so much time that his voice is getting taken over by the “me, me, me” of his problems? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure. But I was and am sure that I haven’t been making enough happen. I haven’t been getting Charlie to do enough.

So today I sat down to write a scene where Charlie doesn’t think. Or at least not much. I told myself to back way from the voice I’d been trying to get to–what I envision as a quiet voice, the voice of a thinker. I told myself that, if I saw Charlie heading too far down the thinking path (and today’s definition of “too far” was one step), that I had to give him something to do. I told myself to make things happen, to make Charlie act and react, and to see where the voice fell.

I think I got further away from petulant. I don’t think Charlie pouted much. Maybe. I know I got to a moment when I didn’t have enough that was going to happen, and I made something more happen. And I didn’t give Charlie time to do much thinking. I’ll see what my critique group thinks.

Did I hit a better voice? Did I hit any voice at all? If I knew that, I could give you the answer to life, the universe, and everything. (Yes, I know: 42!)


  1. I find voice elusive too. And yet like you, I know when I’ve caught it! But I like your idea of working on making your character act. Sometimes I’m too much in thoughts too. Then again, have Charlie pick/find a box, see what he stashes in it and maybe you’ll come up with some new ideas. Worked for me! πŸ™‚


  2. Petulant! Hmmmm – I can relate to that.Or to angst and self-pity. I think that’s where my current character lives. I mean that is part of the plot so I need it but what I also need is some humor to balance out the petulance. Humor is elusive for me. Sometimes it just flows without any particular intentionality – that’s when it works. Harder for me is to intentionally insert humor.

    I do think that getting out of the head and making my character speak or do something helps with the whole voice thing. I always enjoy your reflections, Becky. (when I read them and I have really backed off reading blogs in the last year – just because life has been overwhelming and it was one less thing to do)


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, yes, humor– which is hard. And when I get there, it’s not necessarily the kind of humor I’m thinking of for this character/voice. Still playing!


  3. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I’ve had a problem with petulant characters, and what I try to do is cut back on their describing their own feelings, and describe more what is happening, and what they are noticing about other people, and how they think other people are feeling.

    Sending the MC’s observations outside of himself to focus on other characters, and letting the reader figuring out how the main character is feeling instead of him telling them, are two approaches I find useful.


    • beckylevine says:

      Jenn, I like this. I think I had got to the action part, but hadn’t made the leap to showing/interpreting other characters. I like the idea.


  4. Thanks, Jenn. Good way around this issue!


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