Among the different elements of writing, voice is hardest to define. One could say that voice is the style in which the story is told: the syntax, the diction and the poetry of the narrator. It is through the voice that we experience the story. The narrator’s voice is often the first element that attracts us to a book. The appeal of many good YA novels comes from an authentic, often raw voice.
Teenagers have limited life experiences, yet their emotions and opinions tend to be firm and at times dogmatic. In order to authentically express the character’s emotions, the narrative voice needs to use the vocabulary and diction of the time in which the book is set. In a contemporary novel the young narrator can use colloquial or even foul language. E. M. Kokie’s novel Personal Effects starts like this: “Of all the lame s*** on Pinsher’s Backback, his War is not the Answer sticker p***es me off the most – even more than his Practice Nonviolence button, which makes me want to practice some violence on his face.” We immediately feel the narrator’s anger and expect that there will be an altercation soon after these opening lines (and there is). Kokie also uses voice to demonstrate the character’s development over the course of the story as he slowly learns to deal with his pain, anger and loss.
By expressing a protagonist’s emotions, observations and reactions to the events in the story, voice also becomes a tool for showing a character’s development. As the character changes over the course of the story, so does his or her voice. Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira,Kira is told from Katie’s perspective. She is a naïve 6-year old at the beginning of the book and the author reflects the young age of her protagonist in the speech pattern of the narrative, including simple syntax. Katie matures over the course of the story and so does her language.
Style and tone of voice are unique by definition. Some writers take the reader even further by creating a new kind of speech. These are often science fiction novels where readers must infer meanings of words and expressions from the context they relate to in the reality unique to the particular novel. This is masterfully done in Adam Rapp’s futuristic novel Copper Elephant or by M. T. Anderson in Feed where he invents a future teen slang where ‘null’ means ‘boring’ and kids call each other ‘unit’ while one character’s father still addresses him as ‘dude.’
Another example for a story told in a distinct, and dystopian, dialect, is Adam Rapp’s futuristic novel Copper Elephant.
Teenagers can be full of angst and self-doubt. Their sexual desires can be overwhelming and the cause of painful insecurities. Many YA novels express the teenage protagonist’s lack of confidence regarding his or her love interest with frankness and humor. Here is a quote from John Green’s Looking for Alaska:
“I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. Not f***, like in those movies. Not even have sex. Just sleep together in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.”
In A. S. King’s, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the heroine struggles with her feelings toward her dead former friend. “Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”
Sexual insecurities and other aspects of teenage angst are often covered by self-deprecating humor. This mixture of vulnerability and self-deprecation makes Vera Dietz so appealing. Likewise, readers of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian will commiserate with the self-deprecating voice of 14-year old geek Arnold as he tries to find his way out of the Indian reservation.
By employing a distinct and authentic voice the author signals confidence and authority, promising the reader a unique ride in someone else’s head. The reader knows they are in good hands and willingly follows the narrator into the story. As Jennifer Donnelly, author of the wonderful YA historical romance The Northern Light says, “Voice is not just the sound that comes from your throat, but the feelings that comes from your words.”
Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com
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