What’s Your Voice and Is it the Right One?

bare trees in misty waterThe term “Voice” describes various aspects of a writer’s expression in story; it includes your unique writing style and the style you’ve chosen to adopt for the particular story you’re telling. The voice of your story is influenced by your audience—youth, adults, crazy people, etc.—as well as the subject matter and general overall theme of the story.

Voice is the feel and tone that applies to: 1) the story or book (narrative voice); 2) to each character in that story; and 3) the author’s own voice (authorial voice; in business it’s called the brand), which you carry with you in every work. It is the combination of all these “voices” that make each of your works unique. Think of a fine artist, a painter like Vincent Van Gogh, whose unique painter’s “voice” was apparent in all his Impressionistic works. The wild swirls of light and texture characterized all his paintings; yet, each individual work expressed its own unique message in Van Gogh’s artistic journey.

Authorial Voice

You express your authorial voice and the voice of your story through tone, perspective, style, language and pace. All of these reflect your intent and are ultimately expressed in the story’s overarching theme. The overarching theme is ultimately the author’s theme, the “world view” — the “so what part” — of the story. The principal character and minor characters will carry variations of the main theme, each with his or her unique voice. Invariably, the voice of the story reflects the author’s philosophy, biases and message.

Writers generally struggle in the beginning to obtain their unique “voice”, often adopting the voice of a writer they admire. Although this can help a writer define their own voice (by illuminating what they like and strive for), it can also retard an author’s unique self-expression. It is so much easier to use another’s proven formula; the danger is that you may never escape from beneath the shadow of your hero. In the area of science fiction, which I write, the internet is rich with “fan fic” (an endearing term for works based on already established stories, worlds, characters, and styles.) Many fan fic writers will not emerge from the shadow of unoriginality to find their own voice.  So, take heed and be mindful of your own voice. Determine what is important to you and you will find your voice.

Narrative Voice

Narrative voice belongs to the persona telling the story. Which persona you adopt in narration depends on what kind of story you are telling, and the kind of emotional atmosphere you wish to achieve, says Crawford Kilian, Canadian author of over a dozen novels. The persona develops from the personality and attitude of the narrator, expressed through the narrator’s choice of words and depictions. Depending on your choice of POV (see my previous article on Viewpoint), the narrator of your story can be one or several main characters or you, the writer. More on this below.

Character Voice

It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not.

In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a chaotic mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the story. Each person’s speech is typically consistent, reflecting their ethnic and regional background, who they hang around with, their education, history and biases. Consistency is critical; it helps readers identify with a character. They will abandon a story whose writing—and voice—is not consistent. So, my advice to this beginning writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it.

Voice incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, and humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, guffaw, belly-laugh? Does she usually put her hand over her mouth when she does? Does she do or say certain things when she’s nervous?  See my upcoming article on body language for more detail.

Who Should Tell the Story?

When telling a story through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, it makes most sense to tell it through the main character, the protagonist, around whom the story usually revolves. She is the one who’s going to be chiefly affected by the events of the story. Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Fiction: Plot, asks the question: “Who is really at the story’s heart?” If you’re having trouble with the story of Sally and Norman from Sally’s point of view, perhaps you should try telling it through Norman’s point of view. Or perhaps your main POV character is a third person, looking on and, in turn, changed.

Narrating a story from an outsider’s viewpoint (the hidden protagonist as observer-narrator) —sometimes called displaced narrative — can also add an element of complexity and depth to a story. The Illusionist is a good example of this. This story, about Eisenheim (the Illusionist) and his beloved, is told through the cynical eyes of the city’s chief inspector, who learns to believe again through his “experience” of their story. Other examples include J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Saving Private Ryan, My Beloved, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat.

Using a displaced viewpoint character to narrate a story works particularly well if you want to keep your main character strange and mysterious. Having an “outside” character tell the story of one or two other characters, also gives the writer a chance to add another thematic element to a story (the one belonging to the narrator). A story told through the eyes of a dreamer will be very different than one told by a ponderous thinker.

Other kinds of narration include:

  • detached autobiography (narrator looks back on long-past events; e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
  • letters or diary (narrative told through letters, also known as the epistolary novel; e.g. my short story, Arc of Time)
  • interior monologue (narrator recounts the story as a memory; stream of consciousness is an extreme form of this narrative, e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce)

bare trees in misty waterHow Many Should Tell the Story?

The use of multiple viewpoints is common among writers and adds an element of richness and breadth to a story. With each added character’s POV, readers are more enlightened to the thoughts and motivations of characters in a story. When you have several characters telling the story, this is called a rotating viewpoint. A few points to follow include:

  • Alternate or rotate your differing viewpoints clearly (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or part by part)
  • Don’t change viewpoints within a scene
  • Separate different POV scenes within chapters with extra white space or some kind of graphic (e.g., ****)

References

Dibell, Ansen. 1999. Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 170pp.
Killian, Crawford. 2003. “Narrative Voice”. In: Writing Fiction: http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/2003/07/narrative_ voice.html
Morrell, David. 2000. “First Blood, Third Person”. In: Fiction Writer. April, 2000.
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

How Are You Telling Your Story?…Part 1: Viewpoint

renoir-girls-drawingThe story’s viewpoint can be told from several perspectives and which one you choose can be critical to how your story comes across.

Different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles and point of views (POVs). In his April 2000 article in Fiction Writer entitled “First Blood, Third Person” David Morrell warns that some writers may “select a viewpoint merely because it feels natural, but if you…don’t consider the implications of your choice…your story might fight you until you abandon it, blaming the plot when actually the problem is how you’re telling it.”

The viewpoint choices include:

  • Omniscient
  • Third person limited
  • Second person
  • First person

Omniscient View

The omniscient view is the broadest view. Through this viewpoint the narrator describes everything and everyone and may drop into any character at any time, and — in the case of a beginning writer — all too confusingly in the same paragraph.

While this POV is the easiest one to use it is really the hardest to master. In the wrong hands, this viewpoint can be as intrusive as it is distancing. And it is prone to polemic. In the hands of a masterful writer, this viewpoint can make for the most powerful and rich storytelling. Epics of any kind, especially epic fantasies or historical epics, lend themselves to this style. The omniscient viewpoint is particularly suited to a story that is “large”, where ultimately the main character is not any particular protagonist but “the story” itself, or a society or world or time period. The writer must still somehow achieve connection and intimacy with the reader to succeed with this viewpoint. You can do this through lyrical and compelling narrative, poetic language and powerful imagery.

Limited Third Person Viewpoint

A story told through limited third person POV is narrated from one or a few key characters (though not at the same time) by revealing not only their movements but their thoughts and feelings (e.g., he struggled up to his feet, giddy with pain). When starting out, it is often best to adopt this style, which is generally more personal, appealing and least confusing. So long as you respect the readers’ need for clarity by keeping to one POV per scene, you can choose to enter into the heads of as many characters as you wish. It is the norm to use chapter, section or scene breaks when changing from one POV to another.

This style of narrative is the most common one used in contemporary books, particularly genre books, thrillers and action/adventure books. Through conflicting perspectives of your characters, you can swiftly paint a rich tapestry of tension for both characters and reader.

Second Person Viewpoint

This second person viewpoint (“you”) is not often used, mostly because it is both distancing and less easy to read. Although it is a narrative often used in conversation (e.g., “you never know what you’re gonna get with a box of chocolates, do you?”) this style of narrative is harder for readers to embrace and get close to the story’s characters. This viewpoint works effectively in certain artistic situations when you wish to purposefully impart a distance to the narrator, due to their own limitations, infirmity or situation.

First Person Viewpoint

The first person point of view is both the most limiting perspective (told only through one viewpoint) and most personal and revealing (of that viewpoint character). This viewpoint works well in literary fiction where the main character’s thoughts and issues are the key focus in the story. When the character who changes the most is the one telling the story, this makes for very compelling reading.

Many detective stories are told in first person to great effect. The reader is right there with the detective, solving the mystery. The first person viewpoint is also the preferred POV for memoirs, for obvious reasons.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly when narrating through the first person POV, is the reliability of your character. You need to decide how reliable your first person POV character is in telling the story and how you will impart this to the reader. Writing through a character’s faulty perception of the world (and of themselves) provides a writer with an incredible opportunity but also an incredible challenge. You can only go so far with an unreliable character before losing your own credibility as a writer — and losing the reader in the long run. Obviously, you need a balance.

If you are struggling with your story and can’t quite pinpoint what is bogging it down, try changing how you are telling it. Change the viewpoint and see what happens.

canyon path slovakia

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.