Thursday, 13 September 2012

To Each Their Own - Charley R's Guide to Distinctive Narrative Voice

Dialogue plays a massive part in how a character is portrayed to the reader. Unsurprisingly, this is part of the reason why it is so difficult to write. However, it is not only when the character is speaking - whether it be to their friends, their colleagues, or the slightly tipsy orange goddess who is making herself at home in their kitchen sink - that your character will be developing their own distinctive voice.

"Voice" in this sense refers to the way the story is written. Even in a simple third-person tale, when not thinking aloud or talking, a certain character will leave traces of their viewpoint in the tale, whether it be in terms of descriptive language, an objective examination of a person or object, or something more subtle.

Although this is mostly applicable to stories using first person or rotating narration, developing a distinctive voice for a character is an incredibly useful tool when it comes to encouraging audience engagement. One only has to look at the popularity of authors like Terry Pratchett and Suzanne Collins to see that having a particularly gripping or engaging tone can lead to massive success.

People view the world in very different ways, and fictional characters are no different. A jaded, seven-and-a-half-thousand-year-old wizard is going to view an argument very differently to the overly-sensitive gerbil hiding in the rim of his hat. However, with other concerns cluttering the author's mind - pacing, dialogue, grammar, that character that's been giving you dirty looks since you broke his nose three chapters ago - it's not always easy to maintain a distinctive narrative tone for the character.

Thus, I present to you a few examples of things you will likely have noted in your story that can affect your characters' viewpoint, their phraseology, and subsequently their presentation in the story.


1 - Their Social Status
Not long ago, I entrusted a post on this topic to a fictional personage of my own. Amidst his superfluous drivel, one might have noted his ridiculously long title, and his irritating use of long words. Meanwhile, another of his fellow guest posters had a very different voice, and wasn't half so fond of multiple syllables. As well as being a key indicator of their degree of education, a character's social background will also influence the type of people they would associate with, and the sort of language and viewpoint they would pick up from growing up in such an environment. For example, while Rahad might hold a very high opinion of philosophers due to his aristocratic background, Abra regards them with a sort of bemused scorn as, being a working-class girl, she sets little store by their constant disagreements over daft things like the number of winged blokes in dresses who can balance on a pin-head.

2 - Their Hobbies
If someone enjoys something, it's most likely that they know a lot about it. It's also quite likely that, if they are faced with a problem or situation, they will subconsciously start using skills learnt from their hobby to solve it. Pursuits and situations that are similar to, or somehow involve, their interests are likely to be greeted with a more positive view than something that is the polar opposite. These skills can come into play in even the most outlandish of situations, so its worth keeping them in mind when confronting your character with a challenge. Theseus might have had a good deal more fun with his ball of thread in the Minotaur's maze if he'd been proficient in the art of crocheting lumpy things.

3 - Their Self-Awareness
No, I don't mean whether or not your character wakes up in the morning remembering if she has toes or not. Characters who are more self-aware are more likely to have a greater understanding of not only their likes, dislikes, strengths and limitations, but they are also more likely to present a very different  viewpoint to a character who is less prone to introspection. This may mean the former character has a more definitive view on situations, or is more worried when they have to push themselves beyond what they consider their limit. Meanwhile, the less self-aware character will likely draw the lucky number to be taking a voyage of self discovery at the same time as chasing the mystical MacGuffin across a land infested with a worryingly large number of carnivorous fungi.

4 - Their IQ
This might sound incredibly obvious, but there is a marked difference between someone's education-earned knowledge and their natural cognitive ability. Just because your character came from the working class, left school at fifteen and currently works behind the counter in Tesco's doesn't mean they're as thick as a pound of mince. One can demonstrate a character's natural thinking by showing how fast they work out different types of problem, or how easily they catch on to new skills, or piece together related (or perhaps unrelated) events. My 2010 NaNoWriMo featured a character who was severely dyslexic, illiterate, and poor as a church mouse, but was naturally very good at hands-on tasks (he could dismantle and re-assemble his ancient semi-automatic rifle in under a minute) and had a strong graps of strategy and consequence. Confront him with a page of quantum physics, however, and he would have been running for the exit faster than you could say "Newton".

5 - Their Faith
There aren't many openly religious characters in Young Adult books, but across the rest of the market one might be able to find a few. Religious faith varies wildy, even within a single religion, so it's important to have at least a general understanding of your character's religious stance, if you decide to give them a faith. Their faith will also influence things like their moral views, their sense of fate, and maybe even their views on larger themes such as death, love, and the rights of intelligent aquatic mammals. Meanwhile, it may also cause additional conflict when they are faced with a difficult moral decision - especially in a contemporary setting, if something like the right to die, homosexual rights, or a controvertial medical treatment are involved. Whether their faith means they are any less scared of being chewed to death by the large, angry dragon that is barrelling towards them across the skyline is another matter entirely.


What about you, readership? How do you deal with the challenges of narrative voice? Is there a particular strategy you like to use to help you work it out for an individual character? Do you think I've missed any crucially important factors from my list up there? Leave me a comment and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. This is going to be a big challenge for me as I enter NaNo this year. I know I can do the girl. She's likely to have a voice similar to another character of mine, only a bit more 'old fashioned' if you will. It's the boys I'm going to have an issue with. I've never done a teen boy before let alone two brothers that are going to be at odds - one with his mind always straying to the ladies. :}

    1. Haha, I hope this post helps you out then! Boys aren't that hard once you have them pinned down, honest! ;)

    2. I hope so. I did some plot transcription into Scrivner the other day, and I think I might be getting Andrew down at least. (Thanks in part to our e-mail conversations.) Now to work on Travis. I think I need to do some writing excersises with him... Now why did he start to try and sneak away when I said that?

      Geash you'd think I was you or soemthing. *cackles* :}

    3. Indeed. Threaten Travis with a soaking from my goo gun if he tries to misbehave - it worked on his brother *cackles*

  2. Me, I just try to keep my characters from sounding British-- beyond that, I give up.

    Seriously, though, I don't like to focus too much on voice because of the number one thing on your list: in short, slang. I don't like slang, if you haven't noticed. I don't like abbreviations, swearing or things like that. I like straightforward words that could be understood in any time period or context. Thus, I don't let my characters swear, use obvious accents (as Jacques does more often than not), or actually have their own voice. Yes, I could add the other things you mentioned, but the main factor is the local manner of speech, in my opinion.

    And of course there's the other fact that all my characters have the same type of personality...

    1. Fair enough to you - the author's morals are an entirely separate entity to the characters, and it's always your choice as to how you present them. Even if you don't want to use swearing, though, this sort of thing might still be useful to help you hash out more distinct personalities for the characters, if you're stuck in that situation (I used to have issues like that, until I discovered the joys of creating weirdos).

      Speech and dialogue is, a mon avis, perhaps the most important way you can make your character distinct - I won't say otherwise. However, say you have a character who doesn't do a lot of talking, making them more distinct in other ways can help the reader engage with them in a different way to how they might engage with another character.

      Depends on the story, really. And, of course, the preferences of the author as to what they think is important in a story. It's not as if I'm the oracle on all things writerly, is it?

  3. Great post! I really liked it and you had some excellent points there. My trouble (okay, *one* of them) is getting how I *know* my character's voice is down on paper. I have it in my head. But on paper...eek. Anyway, REALLY liked this post!! :) Really clear.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you liked it.

      A good way to pin down a character's voice is, literally, just to try writing out a stream-of-consciousness inside their head. I do that with my more difficult characters, and it really does help you sort out their little quirks of thought and stuff like that :)

    2. Well I *should* be able to do a good stream-of-consciousness, eh? :) But (confessions) I've never actually thought of streaming by my characters. I'll give it a go. Good adivce, eh?! :]

    3. Give it a try and see if it works for you, I say. one never knows :)

  4. I come across this a lot, being a multiple 1st person narrators kind of person.
    Cormac - is old, so his voice is very formal. No contractions. He doesn't believe in hell or heaven, being a fairy, so he'll never say 'what the hell'. He uses Irish slang sometimes.
    Alex - is very sarcastic, used to being on the run. He uses a lot of contractions and generally speaks in a much more concise manner, because he's never had a need for fancier language.
    Both reference their past as opposed to pop culture, since they're both out of touch but have lived a long time.
    Bronwyn, on the other hand, references pop culture all the time, from Les Mis to the Incredible Hulk, because that's her background. She likes Torchwood, she likes Doctor Who, she listens to Chameleon Circuit. They're very different.

    1. Wow. Dealing with all those voices on paper, and trying to keep them from crashing into one another, must be a nightmare xD