Backlash against The Catcher in the Rye seems to have become fashionable, but this is the novel I always think of first when I think of voice. I reread Catcher every few years, and each time I pick it up, I expect to be underwhelmed. All I can remember is that a kid who flunked out of prep school spends a few days wandering around New York, bemoaning the abundance of phonies in the world. And then I start reading, and that voice grips me, and I remember why this book has remained popular for more than half a century.
Voice is what grabs a reader from the first line. After all, it takes at least a paragraph, and usually more than that, to set up a plot. As engaging as a plot may be, we want to like the voice whispering this story in our ears. Or, if we don't like the voice, we still want to be drawn in by it, intrigued.
Some thoughts on voice:
--Voice is not an element of first-person novels only. As I discussed the other day, a third-person narrator has a voice too, and it may be quite different from the voice of any of the characters.
--A strong first-person narrator is usually passionate. It doesn't matter what s/he is passionate about: training for the Olympics, attracting a girlfriend/boyfriend, saving the family farm, collecting butterflies, catching a criminal. There must be some urgency, some want or need. A strong third-person narrator is passionate about showing us this story.
--You don't have to like a narrator to find his voice compelling. Examples: Alex of A Clockwork Orange. Humbert Humbert of Lolita. From recent YA: Keir of Chris Lynch's Inexcusable.
--A compelling voice is consistent. The character may be an inconsistent or changeable person, flighty or unreliable, deceptive or secretive. But the voice, which is really the lens through which we view the story, is consistent in presenting that character.
--I've always liked humorous voices. I also like voices, humorous or not, that acknowledge the characters' own flaws and embarrassments. These approaches are useful if you want the reader to identify with your character; who can identify with perfection?
--A compelling voice is complex. It doesn't accept stereotypical limits on vocabulary or facility of expression. While there must be believability in how a character's circumstances have affected his/her ability to communicate, people also have individual characteristics that come into play. Our characters may never be as complex as real people, but they should reflect those realistic complexities as much as possible.
--An effective narrator reveals what we need to know when we need to know it--not before, not after. This is certainly intertwined with plot and pacing, but I believe it's a feature of voice too. The narrator's revelations may be intentional or unintentional (they always are, or should be, intentional on the writer's part). What does this narrator notice, and when? What does s/he fixate on? What does s/he tell us about, and when? What does s/he omit, and why? How long does this narrator take to convey a thought, an image, an event?
In my own writing, the narrator's voice tends to come from my subconscious or my gut or somewhere. I'm never very successful in trying to consciously shape or change a voice--such efforts seem flat, forced, unnatural. Instead, I try to increase my access to a voice, to encourage it to go deeper, to be more honest, more forthcoming, more itself. The work I do in this area is about removing obstacles or giving the voice something to talk about.
The other conscious decision I can make with respect to voice is deciding that the voice in a draft project just isn't strong enough to carry that work. In such cases, I'll set aside the project. Sometimes, later, I end up telling that same story through a different voice.