The Voice

By Sherry Harris

The Voice is a reality singing competition on NBC. The premise is that judges build teams only through listening to a singer without being able to see them. In writing a reader hears the characters voices and after reading Barb Goffman’s collection of short stories, Don’t Get Mad Get Even, I wanted to talk to her about voice and where her unique voices come from. Thanks so much for joining us today Barb!

BarbgoffmanWhat do you think voice is? What creates it? 

Voice is attitude. I don’t mean that a character has to have an attitude (be rude), but a character with a strong voice has thoughts and feelings that make her jump off the page instead of lying there flat.

Voice is one of the hardest things for a writer to learn. Point-of-view, in contrast, is technical and can easily be taught and learned (easy of course being a relative term). The importance of using strong verbs to convey action is another concept easy to show and understand. But voice—I once had a teacher say that your writing either has a voice or it doesn’t, that there’s no manual on how to create voice. I don’t know about that. I think everyone has a voice, some people just don’t know how to show it. And it’s hard to learn how to give your characters their own voice if it doesn’t come naturally, but all hope isn’t lost. A writer can develop her voice. My best suggestion for doing so is to read writers who do it well, writers whose characters feel as if they are alive in the room talking to you. Read and read and read and maybe your own voice will find its way out, too.

What comes first the voice or the character?

It’s hard for me to separate the two. A character without a voice isn’t developed. But if I had to choose, I’d say voice. I’ll often suddenly hear a voice in my head, a snippet of dialogue or monologue, and I’ll think, Ooh, she sounds interesting. But I don’t know who she is yet or what her story will be. All of that will develop based on the attitude (see above) of the character’s voice.

Do you prefer first or third person narrators?

I prefer writing in first person. It comes naturally to me. That said, I’ve written fiction in third person, too. I have an unpublished novel in third person and an unfinished story in third person. I hadn’t even realized I’d been writing the story in third person until I was a couple pages into it. First person and third person don’t have to be that different if you’re writing in close third person, so that we’re in the main character’s head. If done correctly, the reader shouldn’t even notice which narrative device you’re using.

As a reader, I’ll happily read both first person and third person. Again, if done well, the manner of the storytelling shouldn’t matter because I’ll be so engrossed in the character’s story (and head) that I won’t notice if the writer has used first person or third person.

It’s worth noting that some writers use an omniscient point of view. That’s a difficult thing to do well because it can make the reader feel removed from the main character. I’ve never written in the omniscient point of view.

What does each bring, does it depend on the story?

Again, I don’t think first person and third person have to be that different, so—for me—it’s not a matter that one type of story should be written in first person and another type should be written in third person. It’s whatever works for the author. Even when I write in third person, it’s in such a close third person, there should be virtually no difference to the reader. An example:

First person: I walked into the bookstore, and my heart drummed. Oh, my God. It’s him. My favorite author.

Third person: Jane walked into the bookstore, and her heart drummed. Oh, my God, she thought. It’s him. My favorite author.

don'tgetmadDo you use voice/narrators to fool the reader?

No. I’ve tried to fool the reader with word choices and what a main character says and thinks (and doesn’t say or think). Good examples of this approach are my stories “Volunteer of the Year” and “Ulterior Motives.” I’m not sure how to use a character’s voice to fool a reader if that character is one whose thoughts the reader is privy to. Even with an unreliable narrator, whose judgments and reactions might be skewed, the character is who he is.

How did your voice or in your case multiple voices develop? They’ve developed naturally from reading and writing. As many have said before: practice, practice, practice. I also am what I call a method writer (similar to a method actor). When I’m writing a character, I am that person, with all her background and issues and knowledge and fears. (Or at least I try to be.) So as a plot develops, I write what my character would think and feel in each instance because those are my actual reactions. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but that’s my process.

Did you model it on anyone or did you always hear your own unique voice? I generally don’t model my voice on anyone. I just let myself go on the page. I once had a friend tell me that no matter which of my stories she was reading, she could hear me saying the words. I hope that’s a good thing, that even though my characters are different, my unique voice shines through.

That said, sometimes I need to do a little research to get a voice right. For instance, when I wrote “An Officer and a Gentleman’s Agreement,” I was writing from the point of view of a narcissistic Army general. I couldn’t get the voice right, so I watched the movie “A Few Good Men,” in which Jack Nicholson played just such a character. Nicholson helped me get my voice right.

Whose voice do you admire? Wow. So many authors have voices that shine. Here are a few:

Janet Evanovich – Stephanie is funny. Her reactions are real with spot-on timing.

Laura Durham – The sidekick in her Annabelle Archer series, Richard, is so full of personality, I want more and more.

Spencer Quinn (aka Peter Abrahams) – The narrator in his Chet and Bernie series, Chet, is a dog. Quinn puts the reader in Chet’s head so we see Chet acting and thinking like a real dog, yet he’s also a great sleuth. Chet is a wonderful character.

Julia Spencer-Fleming – Her characters are distinct and really come to life. Her characters are also funny but in a quiet way, so that when a character says something funny, it can come out of the blue and literally make me laugh out loud.

Craig Johnson – Ditto everything I said about Julia Spencer-Fleming.

As you can probably tell, I admire writers who write humor. I love reading it and writing it myself, and I appreciate others who do it well. Some of my stories have touches of humor, such as “Have Gun—Won’t Travel” and “Christmas Surprise,” both of which are new this year, published in my collection, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.  I’ve written other stories with the goal of creating a funny mystery, including “Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy” and “Murder a la Mode.” Stories designed to be funny require a lighter touch and writing with a strong voice allows me to achieve that.

Barb Goffman is the author of the recently released short-story collection DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN (Wildside Press). Barb’s stories often focus on families because the people you know best are the ones you’ll most likely want to kill. Or at least that’s been her experience. DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN contains fifteen stories, ranging from funny to dark, and from amateur sleuth to police procedural. It has all of Barb’s award-nominated stories and five new ones. Barb has been nominated for the Agatha Award five times, and the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award twice each. Her story “The Lord Is My Shamus” (available in DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN) is currently up for the Anthony and Macavity awards, to be given out at the Bouchercon mystery convention in September. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-editor of the Chesapeake Crimes series (Wildside Press) and as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. She’s an avid reader and a doting mom of a very cute dog. You can learn more about her and her stories at


16 Thoughts

  1. Great interview with a great author! I loved The Lord is My Shamus – talk about voice. Wonderful. Thanks for joining us today, Barb.

  2. Loved the interview and learned a lot. I had to laugh – I am also a fan of the Chet and Bernie stories! Best of luck at Bouchercon, Barb!

  3. Barb I think you are right that it is very difficult to learn about voice! And I loved that you watch A Few Good Men to help with a voice that wasn’t quite right. That is a great idea!

    1. Great job, Sherry. Will be paying much more attention to voice as I read from now on.

      1. The credit goes to Barb — she’s the one that answered the questions and gave us all such great insight in to voice! It does make you read a different way!

  4. Hi. Thanks so much for having me here. It’s been fun to talk about voice. There are so many in my head, it’s nice to get them out and down on paper. ; )

    Edith, I’m so pleased you liked my story about Job. I’m partway through another one using him as a sleuth.

    Shari, isn’t Chet the best? I wish we could persuade Spencer Quinn to come to Malice Domestic one year. I bet the Malice readers would love his books.

    Jessie, thanks for your best wishes. I have stiff competition for both the Anthony and the Macavity awards. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

    Sherry, what other job is there where sometimes you simply HAVE TO watch a movie? Oh, how we authors suffer for our art. Thanks again for inviting me here today. I’m having fun!

  5. I enjoyed your post, Barb. And I’ve enjoyed the various voices in your stories. If I had to single one out, it might be “Ulterior Motives.” I think capturing an adolescent’s voice poses special challenges, and you certainly met those challenges well. (I also loved the ending in the story–the final twist took me completely by surprise.)

    1. Thanks, B.K. Hearing this from a short-story writer who knows her stuff means a lot. And thanks, especially, for your comments about “Ulterior Motives.” I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback on that story so it’s very nice to hear your thoughts, as well as to know I surprised you.

  6. Good interview, Barb. I love your voice in your short stories. I like to write humor, too, mostly a subtle humor. Several professors told me I wrote like Dorothy Day. I don’t think it was the humor because I didn’t write humor in research papers, but I did get a book about her and it languishes somewhere on my shelves as yet unread. I wanted to see if I had her voice and what that meant back then.

    1. Thanks, Gloria. And I share your shelves of unread books. I just hope I read them all before I die. Of course, it would help if I stopped buying books. Ah, well …

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