As an editor, I’m often asked what voice is and how to develop it when writing a novel. Voice is difficult to define beyond “the author’s writing style,” which includes tense, imagery, sentence structure, rhythm, vocabulary, humour, warmth, irony, level of description, etc. It’s the novel’s personality, and the style should fit the narrating character. Often, what’s not said is just as important as what is.
One of my favourite stories that has a strong voice is the Murderbot series by Martha Wells, beginning with All Systems Red. Since the fifth book in the series came out this month, it seems appropriate to discuss my favourite sarcastic robot today.
A big part of Murderbot’s voice is being an unreliable narrator. Murderbot is coming to terms with being more human than it would like, and often denies its feelings. But All Systems Red and the rest of the series is written in first person, so we have to figure out for ourselves when Murderbot is deceiving itself. The very name it gives itself—Murderbot—clues us in on its sarcastic nature, because Murderbot does not, in fact, go around murdering people. All it really wants to do is be left alone and watch TV shows.
Murderbot is unreliable in another way, which we see right at the beginning of the novel. It doesn’t describe everything it sees in detail. This is fitting for its voice, because it is a SecUnit, concerned with keeping its clients safe. So its descriptions of setting and what it notices are limited to what it cares about. When a giant, hostile creature attacks in the first chapter, all we readers know is that the monster has a big mouth. Murderbot doesn’t give any other description. Is it furry? Slimy? Long? Fat? Doesn’t matter—because the only thing that matters is it tried to attack Murderbot’s clients, and Murderbot stopped it.
Another key component to Murderbot’s voice is its shyness. Importantly, Murderbot doesn’t tell us it’s shy. It shows us through its interaction with the crew. Murderbot doesn’t like revealing it’s human-looking face, and prefers to keep its helmet on and opaque. It also likes interacting with people by looking through its camera feed instead of looking directly at the person its speaking to—because this offers a degree of separation from the personal interaction. One of my favourite scenes is when one of the human characters, Ratthi, tries to talk to Murderbot about its feelings while they’re traveling on a hopper, and Murderbot responds by getting up, walking as far away as possible in the space, and facing a different direction.
Murderbot also tries to convince itself its not getting attached to the crew its been guarding, but its actions give it away. It has come to care for these people. Its shyness and sarcasm are endearing.
All of these elements culminate in a strong narrative voice that is this series’ biggest strength and what makes it so enjoyable to read.
When developing your own novel’s voice, don’t worry about forcing it in the first draft. Let the voice come from your character as you are writing and learning about who they are. Later, when you go back to edit and rewrite, you can make more conscious decisions about who your narrator is and how that comes across in the narrative style. If you decide your narrator is unreliable sometimes, like Murderbot, consider how that unreliableness makes that character more human and relatable. Murderbot might be an AI, but I understand its anxiety and stress in social situations on an intimate level. Its unreliableness often brings me closer to the character. A key component of voice is drawing your reader in in this way.
If you haven’t read the Murderbot series, I highly recommend it. Add it on Goodreads, order it from your library or local bookstore, and enjoy Murderbot’s delightful sarcasm.