Point of View, part 1: what is this thing called voice?

Like many beginning writers, I've been struggling with the concept of voice. It seems to me that "voice", in writing, has at least two meanings, if not more. First, there's voice in grammar. Any verb in English will have both tense, voice and mood. Tense is pretty obvious - every verb has to be in either past, present, or future. Voice, in this context, means passive or active. Mood is indicative or subjunctive/conditional. So - what does all this technical speech really mean?

Here's an example: Take the sentence, "Charlie thought the world would be a better place if cars did not exist." The first verb we come across is "thought". That's in past tense, clearly. The voice is active - Charlie's doing the thinking. The mood is indicative - so far. The next verb, though, is "would be" That's also past tense, but the mood is conditional. The world is not a better place, because cars do exist. That's why the conditional mood is sometimes called "contrary to fact".  The final clause of this sentence is also contrary to fact, and also past tense. 

But, when people talk about voice in a story, or an author's voice, they really aren't talking about grammar. It seems to me they are combining the other two meanings of voice: the author's individual style, and point of view. An individual style will be - well, individual. Some of us love semicolons; others think they are evil and will never use them. Some professionals in publishing rail against "long-ass sentences", but I've also read we should vary sentence length. Some people strive for greater formality when they write; others strive to write the way they speak. The most skilled writers, IMHO, will vary their style to suit the story they are telling. But always, the individuality of the author will shine through. It will show itself not only in the word choices and grammar, but also in the subject matter the author chooses and the genres he or she is drawn to. 

Then there's point of view. Flannery O'Connor famously said that it would run you ragged, and it certainly can!  I find the trick is to stay firmly in your character's head (or heads) and see the story through their eyes. Then set it down as they would do.

This is easer if your character is someone like you, who sees the world as you see it. It's quite tricky if that's not the case. How could I, a white woman, write the POV of a young man of color? Could I do it at all? If so, how? I haven't dared even try this in my own time and place, and I really admire authors who can pull it off. There are some wonderful sites out there giving help when you're attempting to write a character from a culture that isn't yours. To give just a couple of examples, Tu press has some great articles on this subject, as does the SFWA. Here are links:



I never did get to talking about the dangers of first person, present tense, but this is  already long! So I'll start with that next time.

Mary Johnson