6 Steps to Create a Fantastic Narrative Voice (What I Learned Writing Storming)

6 Steps to Create a Fantastic Narrative Voice (What I Learned Writing Storming)

You hear it all the time: readers’ time is precious, and they’re not going to waste it on books that aren’t da bomb. I certainly feel that way about my own reading choices. What’s my main criterion for instantly recognizing when a book isn’t going to be worth my time as a reader? Voice. It all comes down to character voice–and specifically, the narrative voice of the protagonist.

Whenever I’ve polled readers about “make or break” factors in their decisions to buy books, narrative voice is one of the factors that crops up consistently.

In a nutshell, we could simply define this as “the style in which the story is written.” As such, it’s crucial to the success of your story. It can also be more than a little difficult to understand, much less accomplish. But we’re going to solve that today. Storming K.M. WeilandThis is the second in the month-long series I’m going to be running, featuring important writing techniques I learned or had reinforced while I was writing my dieselpunk novel Storming (coming December 4th). Although narrative voice is something I’ve always been conscious of, it was literally a revelation for me in writing this book. You know how I’m always complaining about how hard beginnings are? How I always labor through the first fifty pages like Charlton Heston in the evil Egyptian mud pits? Charlton Heston Ten Commandments mud pit How the first chapter is inevitably murder, and I have to write and rewrite it about a gazillion times before I get my story legs under me? Well, Storming wasn’t like that. At all. Turns out if you get the narrative voice right from the very start, everything has a much better chance of falling into place like magic. With the exception of a few tweaks to correct technical details, the first chapter that ended up in the book (which you can get a sneak peek of if you stop by again on Wednesday!) was almost exactly the same as the first chapter that pounded out of my fingertips that first day I sat down to write Storming‘s first draft. I credit that very fun and time-efficient first chapter (okay, the whole first draft, actually) to 1) my outline preparation and 2) the colorful narrative voice of my main character: reckless barnstorming pilot Hitch Hitchcock. Today, I’m going to show you how you can have exactly the same experience with your own characters.

Which Is More Important: Authorial Voice or Narrative Voice?

What’s the difference between your voice and your book’s voice? New authors hear so much about the importance of “finding their voice” that they spend a lot of conscious effort and worry on trying to figure out what their “voice” is and how to make it show up on the page. But I say: fuhgeddaboudit about, honey. First of all, the whole idea of “finding your voice” is kinda like “finding your one true love.” It’s a fine theory for the fairy tales, but here in real life, it’s not so much about finding the one as finding a one that works. OVER-6-BILLION-PEOPLE-IN-THE-WORLD-AND-YOUR-ONE-TRUE-LOVE-HAPPENS-TO-GO-TO-THE-SAME-SCHOOL-AS-YOU-WELL-ISN39T-THAT-CONVENIENT-meme-1420 Your voice is like you, in a number of ways: 1. It already exists. 2. It’s a living, evolving thing. 3. It’s not the same as it was five years ago and it won’t be the same in another five years. 4. It just is: you can’t create it and you can’t banish it, you can only refine it. My advice about authorial voice is simply: don’t worry about it. Instead, worry about creating great character voices for each and every story. Your authorial voice will be present in everything you write. Without your even being aware of it, it will create the “feel” of your stories, which will be unique to you. But the narrative voice for each of your stories is going to be a much more conscious iteration. It’s going to change much more dramatically from story to story, depending on your narrating characters and the general tone of each story. If you take a look any of my published novels, you can see instantly that the narrative voices are distinctively different in each one. Behold the Dawn‘s slightly archaic, poetic tone:

Marcus Annan had killed before. He had killed so many times he could no longer remember them all… so many times he had become inured to the ache of sorrow as he stared into the faces of the dead.

Dreamlander‘s more staccato modern approach:

Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you. But this was one was sure trying its best.

And now Storming‘s lively, slangy attitude:

Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.

never consciously think about my authorial voice. But the narrative voices for each of my stories is always a deliberate and conscious effort.

Narrative Voice as the “It” Factor in Your Writing

You might be thinking it’s unfair that I–and so many other readers–make snap judgments about whether or not to buy a book based on the little smidge of its voice that’s available in the first-chapter preview on Amazon. After all, that’s no guarantee the characters will be interesting or the plot will be strong. But here’s the thing: voice is the magic ingredient in any story. It’s the “it” factor. One of my favorite articles from bestseller James Scott Bell is his Writer’s Digest offering “Grit, Wit, and ‘It’,” in which he posits that these three things are the foundation of any great story. “It,” by its very title, is pretty hard to define. But the essence of “it” is voice. As historical romance author Christina Alexander put it to me on Twitter:

A reader doesn’t need to read more than a chapter in your book to tell if your story is going to have that magic “it” factor. Your narrative voice is going to be present from the very beginning, and it’s going to sell readers right away on your ability to carry them through your tale. Pretty important, don’t you think?

6 Steps to Create a Memorable Character Voice for Your Book

With all that in mind, let’s get down to the actual business of creating an amazing narrative voice for your book. Here are six of the factors I identified at play for me in writing Hitch’s voice in Storming. You can use all six to bring that special “it” factor to any kind of story.

1. Choose the Right Point of View

This is critical. The possibilities for your story’s narrative voice are as endless as its potential narrators. Although there are many other factors in choosing the right POV (including, Whose story is this?Which character has the most at stake?, and What is your narrative frame?), narrative voice should always be one of them. If I had chosen to tell Storming from the POV of my female lead–who isn’t a native English speaker–the story’s narrative tone (and thus the story itself) would have been vastly different.

2. Understand Your Character and His Background

The narrating character himself is the foundation for your story’s narrative voice. You’re only going to be able to write the voice insofar as you first understand the character. Ask yourself:

1. What’s his personality? (Sweet, sarcastic, hard-hitting, uncertain.)

2. In what locale did he grow up? (Rural, urban, foreign, secluded, overcrowded.)

3. What was his financial background? (Poormiddle class, rich.)

4. What’s his vocation? (Pilot, preacher, president, professor.)

Every single one of these answers offers clues to the sort of narrative voice this character should be presenting.

3. Choose Your Character’s Unique Phrases and Rhythms

Consciously search out your narrator’s pet phrases and verbal tics. One of the reasons Storming‘s voice was so much fun for me to write was that Hitch basically talks like I do: like me, he’s from western Nebraska, and, like me, he uses folksy slang and euphemisms with abandon. In my work-in-progress Wayfarer, my equally colorful (and equally fun to write) nine-year-old Cockney pickpocket turns most of her sentences into challenging questions.

Although you never want to be too obvious about it, look for simple ways to distinguish each character’s voice. Keep a list of words for each character and avoid letting other characters’ use them.

4. Find the Emotion (aka the Conflict)

Think of your story’s narrative voice as kinda like that cool muscle car you’ve always wanted. Without gas, that car is just going to sit in the driveway and rust. Same goes for your story’s voice. It needs something to do and somewhere to go. It needs something powering it.

Your story’s fuel is your narrating character’s emotion. He needs to be “het up” about something pretty much all the time. He needs to be experiencing driving emotions: desire, anger, frustration, fear. These big emotions–which are inevitably created by conflict–are what give you the opportunity to really go wild within your character’s voice. I kept poor Hitch in a fettle for most of the book, and it was so much fun.

5. Have Fun

Oh, yeah, and speaking of fun… You might think this bullet point is just a casual reminder, but it’s not. When it comes to narrative voices, having fun is serious business. If you’re not enjoying the voice, if it’s not flowing for you, then that may be a good sign you haven’t quite found it yet. Remember: your experience as a writer is a mirror for how your readers will experience the story. If you’re not having fun with the narrative voice, then they probably won’t either.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

6. Experiment

Finally, give yourself space to discover your story’s narrative voice. I got lucky with Storming: Hitch’s voice showed up right from the first sentence. That has never happened to be before, and, honestly, I don’t expect it to happen every single time in the future. Usually, you’re going to need to give yourself the space for a few false starts. Before you start in the first draft, you may even want to give yourself some “doodle time,” in which to experiment with a variety of voices before locking onto the “the one.”

Don’t let the importance and necessity of finding a great narrative voice for your story stress you out. At the end of the day, narrative voice is what writing is all about. Shake your hair loose, find the beat, and go wild with these creative prospects–knowing they will instantly notch up your chances of enspelling readers right from the first line.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you find the narrative voice for your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

6 Steps to Create a Fantastic Narrative Voice (What I Learned Writing Storming)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. robert easterbrook says:

    Fuhgeddaboudit about, honey. 😉 No, seriously; my character’s voice was tricky in my present work in progress because the story begins when he’s only eight years old – I had trouble finding an eight-year-old voice. The story follows him through five ages to his late teens, so his ‘voice’ changes. I had to do some ‘hard’ research to remember what an eight-year-old sounded like. Thankfully, I have plenty of friends with eight-year-old boys. haha But even now, when the character is somewhere around 15 or 16, I have to think carefully about what that age group sounds like. I don’t know; maybe I’m being too pedantic perhaps. But I have kinda enjoyed searching for those voices. But has made me want to have children of my own? Um, what do you think? 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The secondary POV in Storming is an eight-year-old boy. I had a lot of fun with him. One thing I did was go back and look at photos and videos from when I was that age to help me remember the mindset.

  2. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Finally someone mouthed the words that always itched in my brain.
    I always have an eye-rolling moment when important books and talks about anything related to writing spend really crucial chapters telling us to know our voice.
    I wasn’t even aware of the possibility to let external forces influence my voice before that. Author voice is something that is inherent to everything he write. Either consciously or unconsciously. And as far as external influence matter, I think it is healthy enough to write what you want the way you want it. Be it under influence of someone else, what you write will be you.
    But to be honest, I hadn’t realized before the distinction between authors voice and story’s narrative voice. That really has got me thinking, actually realizing a hole in my fantasy WIP.
    Since that novel has two major POVs and a small amount of minor ones here and there.
    The two major ones are student and mentor.
    But I wasn’t keeping track of keeping both of them distinct, maybe someone else would had noticed it and it would had meant terrible news for me. 😉
    Better to work consciously on that from now on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The mastery of voice is a tremendous step in upping your writing game. Have fun with it. I think you’ll find it transformative.

  3. I absolutely agree with you, K.M., and I learned this by accident. I sat down to write the first scene from a character’s POV, made some intellectual decisions about that character’s voice, and from the first paragraph, the character wrote the scene by herself (sometimes himself).

    Examples:

    Kendy: Choices… She’ll speak in run-on sentences; she’ll refer to herself as a girl and by her name, and never use “I”. She suffers from dissociative personality disorder, so these choices made sense. Boom! She’s writing her own scenes. Even though she’s got lots of psychological issues, readers remember her and love her.

    Bobby: Choices… He’s lower class; his grammar is pretty bad; he’s a petty criminal so his ‘morality’ will be a bit askew. Boom! He wrote his own scenes, and my critique groups were furious with me for killing him off.

    Happy in my WIP: She’ll talk to her missing son in her head; she’ll drop the first word of her sentences (not all the time, but frequently); she’s a hobby gardener so her metaphors, etc. will relate to plants, etc. Boom! She’s writing her own story with little interference from me.

    So, in my experience, getting the character’s voice down actually makes the writing go faster.

    Sometimes you can overdo it, however. I had to tone down Kendy’s voice because it got irritating at times, although I loved what she wrote for me. I didn’t have to edit so much with the other two voices.

    I’ve got checklists galore about how to create characters, how to compare their voices to musical instruments or sounds in nature, etc., but none of that works for me. Yes, I have to know who my character is, but I find her voice by making intellectual choices, and then actually writing a scene in that voice. And once I’ve found the character’s voice, s/he comes to life for me, and I’m off to the races.

    It truly is magical.

    • Great examples!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The quirkier the characters, the easier their voices, I find. If I have a happy, “nice” character, their voice often ends up being crazy boring. Inevitably, it’s a sign that the character is the one needing the work, more than the voice itself.

  4. This is my favourite of all your articles. My main protagonist was so much fun because she is angry all the time, even when in laughing or in love.
    However, you are absolutely killing me, because I have also just written a novel about barnstorming, but have yet to approach publishers…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m sure our takes are utterly different–especially if yours doesn’t have a dieselpunk angle. 😉

  5. Writing the first fifty pages is more like Charlton Heston chained as a Roman galley slave to me, but I get your point.

  6. “Keep a list of words for each character and avoid letting other characters’ use them.” – at last someone gives me some specific, concrete advice about how to make different characters have different voices! Thanks, Katie.
    Other tricks might be to vary word length (e.g. one says ‘old man’, the other says ‘veteran pensioner’) and sentence length.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Another good trick is to focus on a character’s general “mood.” The protag’s brother in Storming spends most of the book pretty angry, so that necessarily affects his word choices in his dialogue.

    • Don’t forget Germanic vs. Roman word roots! Similar to short vs. long words. “Foods” vs “Comestibles.”

      I have a theory that our gut-level revulsion to words like “comestibles” (exploited by SNL’s Coneheads) is an echo of the Anglo-Saxons’ resentment of the Roman invaders–or maybe the Norman invaders.

  7. My WIP NaNoWriMo project has been really difficult because of the style I’m writing it in–much less flowey and descriptive than my main story. I think it’s because my main story, I’ve been working on/editing for about four or five years, so my narrative style has had time to mature, evolve, and fit that specific story, setting, and theme. With this project, I feel like I’m very stiff and cold in writing, but then again, it is a first draft, and I’m outlining for the first time too, so maybe it’s just because I’m experimenting with practically everything! I’ll probably come back and reword the entire manuscript, after I’ve written it all and know what happens.

    Is it common for writers to notice their style differs from the first draft to later edits?

  8. This post is even more proof of why you are the best story-coach around. Thank you for sharing your insights and techniques!

  9. You know when people ask you who from real life you put into your books? Is this character based on Phil, is this one based on Bob, this one on Mary?

    That’s how I get my character voices. I have, among my main characters, characters who – while not based on these people in the slightest – speak like:
    Myself
    My eldest son
    My father
    My youngest son
    My mother
    My best mate when he’s flirting
    My best mate when he’s serious

    That simple trick makes those characters sound quite distinctive, while still being easy for me to write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I occasionally do that as well, although I don’t know that anyone in real life would recognize it. 😉

  10. In Buddy’s Story: Love Finds A Way, my character is me as this is a biographical novel. The narrative voice is me at fourteen, complete with phrases, slang of the decade and references to each decade. To find the voice, I used notes that I had passed in HS and kept between me and a friend. I kept them for forty years, knowing that they would come in handy some day!

  11. Love your page and website!

  12. Tamara Meyers says:

    I’m having a real problem with my protagonist’s voice. He’s a 20-ish, Chinese man in 1850s California. I try not to give him too much dialect, but I can’t have him talking like an Oklahoma cowboy either. He has to know English, but not fluently. There are days when I wonder why I ever started this story!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear you. I was very nervous about my protagonist’s voice in my current WIP, which is set in London in the 1820s. But I think it’s coming along nicely. I recommend reading everything period you can get your hands on.

    • Make some Chinese friends?

  13. Hi KM, I am a new author, my love lies mostly with poetry, but I am trying my hand at fiction as well.
    I have two very different fictional books going, one is published, it will be the first in a series, but as it was also MY first, I am redoing it. I know where I want the characters and storyline to go for that one, for the most part, the other, I lost ten chapters of it when I wrote it originally, and although I still was in the process of creating it, am less certain of the best direction to go with it. My question is. how do I try out different ideas for the storyline and get outside opinions, without hearing overly critical shutdowns from more experienced Authors? Should I ask them to let me learn by trying or should I toughen up, suck it up, and just be grateful for the insight and advice? Sometimes, simply knowing the final solution to an equation does not let you see how it was arrived at, eg: showing the work. What would you suggest as to how to handle this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To a large extent, this is just going to depend on finding the right person to ask an opinion of. But I would also recommend that you *don’t* share your work until your satisfied you’ve made it exactly what you want it to be. Although this doesn’t hold true for all authors, my own personal experience has taught me that too many cooks, too early in the process, ruins the broth.

  14. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Trying to find voice of a young teenage girl 14 who gets sent away to her rich Aunt in Scotland during world war 2. I’m challenging myself by writing in the first person (masochist I know).
    Have read some great feedback about character voice etc..

    Any tips?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two thoughts:

      1. Try to take yourself back to when you were fourteen (even if you’re not a girl). Watching home movies or looking at old photographs can be great for sparking memories and mindsets.

      2. Just play with her voice on the page. Keep writing until you find something you like.

  16. Huthayfah says:

    I have several questions about character voice.

    1. What character are you referring to? The main character?

    2. I understand that in first person, the viewpoint character’s voice is the narration, but, in third person, isn’t that the author’s voice? Doesn’t the character’s voice only come into play during dialogue?

    3. If so, what’s this about narrating through character voice? How is that possible?

    4. Am I thinking of a completely different definition of the word? To the best of my knowledge, it’s basic definition is the way a character talks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every character has a unique “voice” that manifests in their dialogue. But when talking about a character’s narrative voice, we’re specifically talking about the POV characters and the scenes that are told from their points of view.

      Omniscient narratives are strictly the authorial voice. But deep 3rd-person is no different from 1st-person in manifesting the narrating character’s voice.

  17. Ms. Albina says:

    My writing is in third person and the speaking is in first person for the characters in Jewel’s story. Jewel is 105 equevelent to 15 in an arrange marriage.
    In Pearlyn’s story her middle is 104 eqvient to 14 years old.

    Jewel was a mermaid princess now a mermaid queen. Her husband and her have three daughters.

    Each clan member that are merfolk have different hair, eye color, skin color and mer-tail and so on.

    All of Jewel’s family have raven hair with a color streaks in their hair also.

    So the merfolk my merfolk age differently age in age slower than the humans so they can up to 700 years and also to 1,000 years old. If they are granted immortaly-they live longer.

Trackbacks

  1. […] with our readers is the key to hooking them. K.M. Weiland has 6 steps to creating a fantastic narrative voice, and James A. Rose lists 12 techniques for emotionally connecting with your […]

  2. […] How to Create a Memorable Character Voice: What I Learned Writing Storming by K.M. Weiland. I found this a really interesting read as a writer and as a reader. […]

  3. […] 6 Steps to Create a Fantastic Narrative Voice (What I Learned Writing Storming) // Helping Writers Become […]

  4. […] 6 Steps to Create a Fantastic Narrative Voice (What I Learned Writing Storming) […]

  5. […] you write may be different, which is more what you’d call the narrative voice of your story. K. M. Weiland wrote a great article on this topic. Go check it […]

  6. […] should be different. That’s more of what you’d call the narrative voice of your story. K. M. Weiland wrote a great article on this topic. Go check it […]

  7. […] Published writer, K.M. Weiland, offers a theory that is closer to my views, that your authentic voice just comes out of you and as long as you’re being honest and not trying to affect someone else’s voice (say, Hemingway or Austen) then you’re going to be fine. You can read the transcript and hear her podcast here. […]

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