Finding a distinctive narrative voice

May 21, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

Narrative Voice

One of the most important things in creative writing is find the right voice for the narrator.  Admittedly, it is also one of the most overlooked.  I used to write without giving much thought to voice other than whether I would use the first or third person perspective, but I’m finally starting to realise that having the wrong voice can absolutely destroy what may have otherwise been a good story.

When I say “narrative voice”, what I mean is the way in which the narrator tells the story.  It’s the style, the tone, the use of words.  Do you want the narrator to be up close and personal, like a father telling his son a bedtime story, or do you want to be more distant, like eavesdropping to a stranger in a bar?

Picking the right narrative voice can be tricky.  For example, if you’re telling a story set in the 1800s, using contemporary language and prose probably won’t work.  Conversely, if you’re writing a story about the technologically advanced future, you wouldn’t want to write it like a Jane Austen novel.  Who knows, maybe you would.  That’s the thing — you can’t be perfectly certain until you try.

Finding a Distinctive Narrative Voice

Some writers always write in the same way and with the same narrative voice.  Some others like to experiment and try different voices in telling a story.

Regardless, finding a narrative voice that is distinctive and stands out is crucial.  Especially if you want to get it published.

I was reading a magazine the other day that interviewed a few successful authors.  When asked what the recipe for success was, most of them answered that it was to “stand out from the crowd.”

Usually, I would presume that to mean having a fantastic, original premise, or at least an original slant on an old premise.  And while I still think that is probably the quickest way to get noticed, this particular publisher (Louise Thurtell for Arena) said:

A strong or distinctive narrative voice is gold to a publisher.  So many manuscripts we receive are marred by a bland, forgettable narrative voice.

And that was when I said “Crap!”  She’s absolutely right!  I thought about some of my favourite novels and what I liked most about them — The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (off the top of my head) — and I realised that apart from having a pretty decent story to tell, what I loved most about them was the way they told the story.

If you have a great idea for a story, you might be able to get away with it, but let’s face it, considering how hard it is to come up with anything truly original these days, it won’t hurt to put a bit more thought and effort into creating a distinctive, powerful narrative voice.

Which just reminds me — I’ll probably have to do something about that when it comes to my stagnant novel, when I eventually get back to it…

Writing as the opposite sex

March 19, 2010 in On Writing, Study

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and every now and then I would come across a first person or third person subjective narrative that is so well-written that I don’t even stop to think that the author is actually of the opposite sex.  And sometimes, the name of the author (especially for short stories) is ambiguous enough that I don’t even bother to find out until someone else brings it up.

How do these female writers write from the male point of view so well, and vice versa?  And really, often it’s not just the sex of the character either.  It’s the race, the culture, the class, everything about that person — ultimately, it’s just a very believable, real-life character.

I know they say you have to put yourself in the shoes of the narrator or the character, but it’s clearly not as easy as just closing your eyes and imagining that you are someone else.  There’s always the natural tendency to revert back to yourself when a decision needs to be made, when something needs to be done, or when something needs to be said.

For someone like me, who can’t even get the male characters right, writing female characters requires plenty of planning.  It almost involves writing a mini-biography.  But that’s not enough.  Usually, when giving them character traits, I need a real-life person, someone I know (or know of) that I can pin those traits on.  Occasionally I may use a hybrid of two or three real people.  It makes it much easier for me to gauge that character’s personality, motivations and desires.  Sadly, even then, sometimes the character still doesn’t really work.  I guess that’s where rewriting comes in.

However, is all of this really necessary?  Isn’t each individual different?  Sure, a person is influenced by where they are born, how they are brought up, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, etc, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be confined to the stereotype.  Isn’t that what makes a character interesting?


Point of View

September 4, 2009 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing

The point of view of the narrative of a piece of fiction or novel is often a brain-crushing issue.

I subscribe to a newsletter called Ginny’s Fiction Writing Blog, and recently I came across a post entitled ‘First Person or Third for New Writers?’

I was surprised to see that the advice given to new writers is to write from the First Person perspective (ie, I did this, I felt this) as opposed to the Third Person perspective (ie he did this, she felt this).  Surprised because at the only creative writing course I attended, we were recommended to use Third Person in all our writing exercises, as we were told that it was ‘easier’ and caused less problems for inexperienced writers.  I have also read several books on writing which also suggested that newbies should start off with Third Person, and when they have built up more confidence, to move on to First Person.  That said, even when writing in the Third Person, when writing individual scenes, we were advised to stick to the perspective of a single person (as opposed to an omnipresent God-like narrator that knows what everyone is thinking and feeling).  It allows readers to relate more, we were told.


Audrey Niffenegger told the story using two First Person perspectives

There’s actually a lot more than just the simple distinction between First Person (eg Twilight by Stephenie Meyer) or Third Person (eg Harry Potter by JK Rowling).  There are books that utilise the First Person narrative but using two separate characters (eg The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), or even multiple First Person narratives (like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult).  Or there are books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which, on the face of it is a First Person narrative (told from the perspective of Death), but because the narrator watches the story unfold from afar, it reads more like a Third Person narrative.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with any style, as long as it is effective.  Out of all the styles described above, only the multiple First Person perspectives (ala My Sister’s Keeper) didn’t feel quite right to me.  It was just a bit too confusing having to jump from one character to another.  Even though each point of view was split into separate chapters, I felt like I could never get into the characters like I should have.  Rather than getting a better sense of what each character was like and how they felt, it ended up having the opposite effect.  Anyway, that’s just me.


My Sister's Keeper used multiple First Person perspectives. Of course, it and The Time Traveler's Wife are now both movies.

So when it came time to decide on what perspective to use for my own fantasy novel, I struggled a lot.  As I always tend to try and put myself in the shoes of the main character, I started off believing that First Person would be most appropriate.    But the problem with using First Person all the way through is that the knowledge you convey to the reader is confined to a single person.  My antagonist also had a great story to tell, and I didn’t want to deprive my novel of his story.  So I started contemplating the idea of the shifting First Person perspective method, where I would tell the story from two views – the protagonist and the antagonist.  But that was still only two characters.  I also wanted all my characters to be fleshed out properly, for each one of them to have real emotions that they could convey to the reader.  But then I read My Sister’s Keeper and felt the multiple First Person perspectives didn’t work, so I scrapped that idea.  Then came the idea of interchanging Third Person narrative with First Person.  It’s been done before.  You tell the story in Third Person, and every few chapters you throw in one from the First Person perspective, written in italics.  It sounded good but was probably beyond my skills as a writer.

In the end, I went with what felt right.  Yep, I decided on Third Person, all the way.  I asked myself – what’s the most important thing here?  Of course, it was simply to tell the story in the most effective way.  I wanted to give the reader a good sense of each of the main characters.  I didn’t want to confine the view to a single person, or even two.  I also wanted exciting action sequences and battles told as though the reader was an eagle watching from above.  I wanted the novel to play out like a movie that would let the audience know what I want them to know, when I want them to know.  The truth is, you could probably do that with any of the narrative techniques, but as a new, inexperienced writer still learning the nuances of the craft, Third Person just made it a whole lot easier.