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.
Writing Question of the Day: What three elements do you believe are most crucial to a good book? #WQOTD
— K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland) September 24, 2015
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. This 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? 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. 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.
I 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? (Poor, middle 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.
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!
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