Friday, February 22, 2013

What is an "authentic" voice and how do you write it?

I'll admit it. I couldn't write a teenage girl's voice to save my life. The idea of writing a YA novel with a female main character scares the bejeebers out of me. Why? I have no idea how to do it! My problem is that whenever I think about what an "authentic" girl's voice is, I can't help but go straight to the stereotypes--emotional, constantly ruminating, obsessed with appearance, boy-crazed, etc. In my mind, that is the authentic teenage girl. These are simply the default traits my mind comes up with. I don't even realize that they are just part of the stereotype, a stereotype that has been subconsciously ingrained in my poor, weary brain.

I'm not alone on this (at least, I hope not!). When we think about "authentic" teenage guy or girl voices, especially when writing about our opposite gender, we are so prone to falling into the trap of stereotypes. It's not something we consciously do; like I said, it has simply been ingrained in our minds that the authentic teenager acts a certain way. It's really difficult for us, as readers and writers, to break away from viewing things with stereotype-tinted glasses. 

So, unfortunately, what we think is "authentic" really isn't all that authentic at all. And boom, we are halfway into a story with a main character we think is authentic and complex but in reality is flat as a board and completely cliche.

This problem isn't exclusive to writing about the opposite gender either. Let's face it, most of us haven't been teenagers for a few years, so we are quite a ways removed from our teenaged selves--and the teens of today. Case in point: I wrote an upper-middle-grade novel about a 14-year-old boy, who served as the story's first person narrator. Try as I might to get his voice to be authentic, I too fell into the trap of the dreaded stereotypes--he was quick to anger, obsessed with the hottest girl, worried about status, etc. I was quickly called out on it by some of the agents I later queried. One even said it seemed like I was "trying too hard" to be authentic. It was a shock to me because all along I thought I had given him the perfect voice, when really I gave him the stereotype of the perfect voice.

As readers we are often prone to thinking in terms of stereotype too. This came up in a discussion I had with my writing group. We were talking about why women writers and their characters are more heavily scrutinized when writing a boy's point-of-view. They are quick to be criticized for not having an "authentic" male voice. While this may or may not be true, what is true is the tendency for readers and critics to criticize a book if the main character doesn't have the traits usually associated with that gender. Problem is, they aren't looking for an  authentic voice, but the stereotype of an authentic voice. The fact is that it's incredibly difficult for us to break away from this thinking, as writers and readers.

So how do we do it? How do we write truly authentic characters? The answer is more simple than you think.

There are no authentic characters!

Every teenager is different. And more importantly, times are changing--teenagers are even more different today than they were even five years ago. Gender norms are breaking down. Even the concept of gender is vastly different now. Teenage boys can be sensitive. Some might not even be interested in girls! Teenage girls play video games. Some might even play football!

Throw the stereotypes out of the window. Now that we realize that they are in our heads whether we mean them to be or not, we can think outside of them. We need to worry less about how the typical girl or boy might act and more about creating unique, complex, interesting characters. Bend those social norms. Dare to be controversial. Make the reader think less like, "Hey, that's not an authentic voice!" and more like, "Wow, what a unique character!"


  1. This is a very timely article for me. Thank you for posting it. I am currently working on a story that alternates between a girl's and a boy's point of view. I've been wondering if my male character has the authenticity of the female one. I love how you stress that there is no such think as an authentic character.

  2. Look at you! Getting your post in on time! :P

  3. You've really nailed something that I've been struggling with while working on a project. Voice can be so stereotyped that I don't think I realized it was the stereotype I've been giving into, instead of the character voice trying to break free.


  4. I think you hit the nail on the head. I actually had an incident recently where a professional editor reviewed one of my short stories in which I never mentioned the character's physical appearance. The editor assumed that it was a guy when I wrote it to be a girl. :'D As a female author, it was a weird experience. At least it was reassuring that most of my beta-readers had assumed it was a girl. (Lesson learned - always make it as clear as possible what your MC is from the beginning.)

    The thing I'm most uncomfortable with writing, though, is a younger age just because the thought process is distinctly different than where I am in life right now. Or, at least, that's what I think.

  5. I think when people (myself included) say a character has an authentic voice, we really mean it's authentic for that specific character. I get frustrated when I read books featuring an authentic male voice and the guy is always swearing, talking about how hot girls are, and being all angsty. As a guy who doesn't act like that, it's hard for me to relate to these narrators and I find them to be unenjoyable and fake....Hope that all made sense, haha. Thanks for a great post!

  6. "Teenage boys can be sensitive. Some might not even be interested in girls! Teenage girls play video games. Some might even play football!"

    These might be revelations for some, but going through high school as a nerdy, queer teenager, this comes off as a little... well, obvious. Of *course* there are girls who play sports and video games and boys who sew and arrange flowers. Of *course* there are guys who aren't into girls and girls who aren't into guys. These are facts of life. People should know this by now.

    Does this really have to do with authentic voice? Only if you assume that prescribed gender roles are automatically a part of voice. And they are, but only inasmuch as they effect the character. An authentic voice is a voice that sounds like a *real* person; gender is just another aspect, another minor consideration about the environment in which this personality, this "soul" exists. As long as it sounds like an actual person talking and not a mouthpiece or a cardboard cutout, you're good.

    I think you also failed to take into account the small percentage of people who have the misfortune of being a different gender, psychologically speaking, than their biological sex. But that's another question entirely.