Should Writers Use a Voice That Is Not Their Own?


A writer forms a character’s unique voice by combining the individual’s cultural background, experiences, and personality into one cohesive style of narration. While it may be easier to communicate in a voice similar to that of the author, other writers choose a more challenging route: shaping a character with an opposite point of view. When executed well, this kind of piece defies expectations and proves that writing with empathy is possible. When texts such as Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem, “How-To,” demonstrate ignorance or prejudice, the public can discern the artificial nature of the voice. To develop a detailed and believable piece, writers should be able to use a voice that reflects a different experience from their own if they research the background of the character and seek additional opinions.

Writers have the creative freedom to speak in different voices to add diversity and depth to their stories. For instance, black authors often write about white characters and males write about females to blend different perspectives in their art, creating an accurate portrayal of real life. If authors were to write about only their own race or gender, they would feel limited and unable to express their true thoughts. However, only a black person would be able to write in the voice of a black character with nuance and authenticity because he has already seen the world through that lens for his entire life. Anders Carlson-Wee tries to adopt the vernacular of a black homeless person asking for handouts in the poem “How-To,” but instead, he opts to use fragmented and offensive terms. The narrator of “How-To” asserts, “If you’re crippled don’t / flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough / Christians to notice.” In an attempt to reveal society’s superficiality and self-importance, Carlson-Wee undermines his own message by including the word “crippled,” an outdated epithet. This sentence only diminishes the narrator’s reliability and makes him seem like a bitter, ignorant individual, perpetuating stereotypes about homelessness.

Moreover, Carlson-Wee’s language is supposed to mimic African American vernacular, but its only defining characteristic is its grammatical errors. Like other writers, he appropriates the “black experience and black pain under the guise of postmodern irony and experimentation” in his poem, according to “A Poem in The Nation Spurs a Backlash and an Apology.” Trying to relate a startling insight into human nature, he uses a black person’s voice as an instrument of his own agenda. This trend plagues modern white writers’ pieces, such as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Full of tropes about black people, The Help includes this unfortunate line that is now ingrained in American popular culture: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Said by Aibileen, a black maid, the line seems forced and unnatural, as if Stockett manipulated the words to illustrate Aibileen’s lack of education. On the other hand, August Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees articulates with a professor’s precision, and her eloquence awes Lily Owens, who supposedly never realized that black people could speak with authority. Sue Monk Kidd is yet another white writer who strove to tell a story about racism but created an inauthentic character by making August a generous, sympathetic woman who never notices, or pretends not to notice, Lily’s petulant and often disrespectful behavior towards the black community.

The balance needed for an authentic voice is somewhere in the middle of colloquialism and perfect oration. By speaking to those with expertise on a specific voice and reading books that use a similar style, authors can identify which elements of speech are effective. Asking for the approval of one person of color is not enough when writing about a black character; instead, authors should engage in a meaningful discussion with others in an ongoing revision process. Ultimately, the writer’s job is not to impress the reader with his own range, but to tell the story with clarity and honesty. The best writing sounds as if it wrote itself and not as if an author agonized over every word on the page. If an author does not find the voice natural or does not have the commitment to do meticulous research, it may be better to assume a neutral style.

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