Capturing your narrator’s voice

Here’s a post from Writers Helping Writers: How Do You Find Your Narrator’s Voice?

Voice is one of those elements that can make or break a manuscript. If you get it right, the novel will live in the reader’s mind long after they put the book down. Without it, the story won’t quite achieve what you’ve intended even if all the structural elements are in place. …

What doesn’t work? asks this post.

Answers: verbal tics and habits. Sarcasm (because it’s overused). I bet we could come up with other things that don’t work. Modern slang in a world far removed from the real world. That can work, but only if the author is doing it on purpose. I’m thinking of the Andromeda tv show here. I quite liked that show — well, some episodes — and I specifically noticed how the modern slang added to the humor of the show. I would add that sarcasm is fantastic as long as it’s not the only aspect of the narrator’s voice. I mean, look at the Scholomance trilogy. Sarcasm, sure, but that’s not at all the sum of El’s voice.

Of course the linked post goes on to propose answers to the question: What does work?

Understanding who your narrator is. That’s the fundamental answer. This post starts by talking about character backstory: how old are they, are they married, what do they do for a living, stuff I guess I do automatically and don’t think about. I’m glad to see this line: I don’t think character questionnaires are the way to nail voice. Right, I don’t think so either. So the post offers just these very broad questions, which I think is fine. You’re going to know the answers to those things, probably.

Here’s the key: slip on their shoes and see the world through their eyes

Yes. I agree with that: This is indeed the key, the only thing that actually does the job. I like this line:

Unless the author is the narrator, they have no business speaking up.

That made me chuckle. I think that’s true — I think that’s where a lot of “message fic” fails. We ought to be in the pov of a young woman in a steampunk Victorian-ish setting, but golly gee, amazing how all her opinions are identical to conventional wisdom that’s current today. Wait, I thought we were in a futuristic version of Singapore, but turns out all the protagonists opinions are … yep, still totally identical to current conventional wisdom.

I’m thinking of specific books that failed for me for this exact reason. One was well written in every other way, but though I liked it while I was actually reading it, I liked it less and less in retrospect and finally moved all the way through the spectrum and wound up disliking it. The other book I’m thinking of is quite popular, so it obviously works for many readers, but I rolled my eyes all the time while I was reading it and never touched anything else by the author. In both cases, the author’s voice was loud in my ears; the voice of the supposed pov narrator voice faded into the background or didn’t exist at all.

Back to the linked post:

Voice is not the only thing in a novel. But if you don’t nail it, you won’t have used point of view to its fullest potential, nor will you truly know your story—because you won’t know the main actors who are driving it forward. It won’t feel authentic, and your readers won’t feel the same emotional draw that they’ll experience when a character comes to life on the page and says, Let me show you what the world looks like through my eyes.

Yep, that.

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8 thoughts on “Capturing your narrator’s voice”

  1. One of my favorite books of the past few years is The Bodyguard by Katherine Center. I found the voice extremely stilted. Yet it suited the character perfectly, and the book was charming and funny. I’m not sure if the author did it on purpose or by accident, but it worked for me.

  2. I found description got much easier to write when I realized the story should only notice what the character would notice. Specifically with a body guard character who looks at the space around her in terms of defensibility and lines of sight, but it always helps me to ask what my character would care about in any given moment.

  3. The sample may not be good! It takes a little while for the book to take off. SUPER charming .

  4. I’ll keep that in mind, Alison!

    And bodyguards are one of my favorite character types — I mean good-guy bodyguards, who take their job seriously, with or without a romance involved!

  5. Fortunately, I’ve only had narrators with distinctive voices for short stories. This is because I find them easy to write when the inspiration is hot, but very difficult to revise without losing the voice.

  6. That is excellent timing, The Bodyguard is on sale today for 99 eurocents on Kobo.
    It’s added to my digital TBR pile.

    I’ve been enjoying the Tea Princess books by Casey Blair. The three novels were fine, I’ll be starting on the collection of short stories next.

    The House Witch turned out rather uneven to my perception, with some dissonant chapters that appeared to be there just for the puns, and more sadness in the third book than I’d expected from the beginning of the first (which charmed me).
    It suffered from something I’ve noticed more often lately, when I’ve bought ebooks on Amazon because they are Kindle exclusive and I can’t get them on Kobo – a lot of them appear to lack good editing.

    I also read the MG book by Sarah Beth Durst, Journey across the hidden islands. It’s much more even in quality, a good solid and optimistic middle-grade book.
    But after finishing it, I was left with the same impression that I had garnered from another of her MG books that I read earlier (Catalyst); she sets up a very important change to the world her protagonists live in, and ends it on a positive note from the viewpoint of her young heroes, but any adult thinking through the consequences can see that when the change starts working out, it will cause a great deal of bad things to happen. It’s (in the 2 I’ve read) definitely not an unalloyed change for the better, and no-one has apparently thought about or started to take measures to mitigate the worst effects.
    On the one hand, because it’s an MG story with young protagonists they won’t necessarily know or be involved in any such mitigating measures; but on the other hand, completely ignoring that there might be less-optimistic results and that something should be done to avert those does not leave me in a very positive space after finishing the book. And as that is why I enjoy reading children’s books, I’ve concluded her MG books may not work all that well for me.

  7. I haven’t tried the Tea Princess books yet, but I’ve got the first one on my TBR pile.

    You’re right that some things are definitely going to be iffy in the near future of the Durst book, but I’m not sure that bothers me. I think I’m assuming adults are thinking about this even when Durst doesn’t show that. And, you know, there’s the dragon. As concerned as she may be for her dragonet, she’s plainly very powerful. As a negotiating tool, saying, “I’m not sure the dragon would like that,” may be useful. Even so, you’re right, and in fact I think that ties into the only thing I really perceived as a weakness in the story — the king is (a) distant with his daughters; (b) not, as far as we can tell, a very effective king overall. I would have liked him shown as more effectual throughout and then he could make one or two comments about things to do to head off negative consequences and, since he’s been shown to be an effectual king, that would help the reader believe that those negative consequences might be handled.

    However, for me, this was a minor quibble.

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