Theresa, what do you think?
I think that every time a writer says about punctuation, "but it's my voice," an angel dies. And not just any angel. A cute, pink, puffy-cheeked baby angel with those adorable fat rolls on its chubby little thighs. Now, do you really want to go through life with that on your conscience -- being the murderer of a wee baby angel?
Okay, maybe I'm overstating the case. Forgive me. I tend to get a bit wild-eyed when discussing punctuation.
So let me give you are a real answer, and I'll try to be rational.
There are two golden rules to keep in mind about punctuation in general. Rule Number One: the publishing house's style guide will control final decisions on punctuation in 99% of the cases. Rule Number Two: if you don't know the house style, then above all, be consistent.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret. I wrote our house style guide. I didn't do it on my own; the editors, copy editors, publisher, and even the typesetter all provided input. And by "input," I mean "argued bitterly over the details." For months. On some of the details, the debate still rages. In fact, in the weeks leading up to our recent editorial retreat, our copy editor warned me repeatedly that she was going to take me on over the Oxford comma, and she did, but probably with less satisfaction than she had hoped for. And don't even get me started on the four-day argument over semicolons that started at the author dinner on Thursday, raged at intervals over the course of the day on Friday, carried us through the drive to Sonoma County, and provided endless conversational fodder for our three days in wine country. You know it's bad when an editor wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks, "Auden!" And the next night, another editor bolts wide awake and thinks, "Yes, but Dickinson!" And each one's slings her quoted poetry at the other, convinced of her righteousness.
So I could tell you that a lot of thought went into the style guide, but the truth is far more complex. Editors approach these matters with an obsessiveness usually reserved to misers counting pennies. That's what makes them good at what they do. If they’re not passionate about whether an ellipses can or can not serve as an end mark, then they probably won't give a damn about many of the other aspects of your story, either.
The house style guide represents a sort of neutral territory in the midst of these ongoing battles. Because the rules of English grammar are in constant flux, and because formal and casual English adopt different rules, there are multiple right answers to the same question. Can you use a semicolon? Answer: it depends on who you ask, when you ask, and the source material. (But the answer is no if you're writing light genre fiction. And now let's all wait to see how long it takes Alicia to respond to that comment.)
You know, we're just perverse enough as a breed to think that all this bickering is fun. We all obey the style guide, and we all know as a result of months of arguing fine points when we can safely ignore the style guide. We develop inside jokes from particular arguments -- just watch Alicia and I use the words "natural storyteller" and then giggle like schoolgirls. Through all of these evolving arguments, even when we may concede a point or agree to adopt a particular convention, we never accept defeat. Because deep in our hearts, every editor worthy of the job title is utterly convinced of the correctness of her personal beliefs. Never mind the evidence. We've thought deeply about it. We know.
Authors are not privy to any of this, though sometimes you witness parts of it. Sometimes you might even enter the fray momentarily, and kudos to those of you brave enough to do it. But here's the thing. When you send your editor an e-mail saying, “But I don't want to do my commas that way," what you're really doing is re-opening a behind-the-scenes battle -- dipping into the ocean's surf, if you will, and wading with those of us who live like dolphins.
So, with all that said, it takes us to the specific question. An author wants to adopt two separate sets of conventions for her punctuation in the same novel. One set will apply to the "voice" of a particular character. The other set will apply to the balance of the novel, which is presumably in the author's voice. Is this acceptable, or even a good idea? Answer: it depends on who you ask, when you ask, and the source material.
But the real answer is no.
There are dozens of reasons that the real answer is no, but they all point to two different concepts. First concept: the purpose of a house style guide is to create a consistent style in all documents released by a line or a house. What you're trying to do violates the very purpose of the house style. More than that, the first reader -- and indeed, all subsequent readers, if you're lucky enough to get to them -- will see your punctuation as inconsistent. It's unlikely that they will analyze it more deeply than that. If they notice it at all, they will probably find it puzzling or annoying. If they don’t notice it, they might still be subconsciously unsettled by the book’s inconsistencies. In either case, you risk breaking what John Gardner calls the fictive dream, that mental state a reader enters when they are captivated by a story. Unless the break is deliberate (and for some experimental or literary writers, such breaks are deliberate), this is not the effect you want.
Second concept: Even if your editor goes along with it -- and it's unlikely that she will -- the copy editor and proofreader are going to hate it. They will find it confusing (as, I suspect, will most of the readers), and they won’t want to be responsible for getting it correct. They're going to try to change everything to the house standards. It will lead to an editorial battle, which the managing editor will settle by saying, "Do what the style guide tells you to do." And then everyone will remember you as the author of the manuscript that led to those battles. That's not how you want to be remembered in-house.
If you are writing genre fiction, you should strive to make your punctuation as transparent as possible. Trust the words. Let the words tell the story. Let the words provide cadence and rhythm, meaning and context. Punctuation is not bling and you should not apply commas like a pointillist decorating a canvas. You don't want your end reader to notice your punctuation. You want them to notice your story.
Trust me on this. I've thought deeply about it. I know.