Narrative Voice


The world you create through your writing – its setting, characters, storyline, atmosphere and the rest – is as fragile as a soap bubble.

As long as your reader believes in your world, and cares about the characters and the outcome of their journey, your reader is likely to stick with you.

Of course, your reader may not care about your characters for reasons you can’t control. He or she has pulled your book off the shelf, discovered it is a romance between a thirteenth century English princess and a werewolf, or the adventures of a female bounty hunter in a distant galaxy in 2168, and that’s just not their thing. No sweat.

But suppose the would-be reader consults the blurb on the back and thinks, This looks promising. They check out a couple of pages and decide to take the book home and read it.

But then – the soap bubble bursts.

Your lovingly created world and characters no longer hold the reader.

Why? What happened?

Well, it could be several things, but the most likely reason I stop reading a book has to do with voice. The characters simply do not sound like who they are supposed to be. Not just in the words they speak, but the words telling me how they see themselves, the world and other people. group-1825509_640Their thoughts about values. About how to handle events. All the words on the page when we are in that character’s head, living their life, whether in “quotation marks” or not.

To use the technical term, the thoughts of the viewpoint character, at least for that part of the book. (A book may have one or more than one viewpoint character, but that is a subject for another day.)

To put it simply, if I am supposed to be inside the head of a fat, lonely, bullied eleven- year-old boy, I want to believe, for that moment, that I am. I want to see the world through his eyes, through his pain, in his language, in his limited experience of life, his limited emotional resources.

I do not want to hear the pity and concern of the middle-aged woman who wrote the scene. I don’t want to remember she even exists somewhere out there in the world of authors and publishers.

I just want to be inside Max, facing the bullies, sweating with him, feeling my heart thumping.


And if he describes the scene in his own eleven-year-old voice, I will be. And I will stick with him to the last page.

How do you achieve that? Well, you hang around the people you want to write about. Learn their vocabulary, their topics of conversation, their attitudes to everything likely to come up in the story. Read similar books to the one you want to write, but read for a purpose.

Stop and ask yourself, “Why is this scene working?” What is the writer doing here that has me utterly hooked on these characters and their story? How does he/she bring them to life so convincingly?

Suggested reading? Start with To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, I know. But there is a reason it is a classic. The flawless voice of the grown Scout Finch recalls how as a small child she perceived a series of events that rocked her sleepy rural town to its foundations. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is widely praised for its “pitch perfect” voices. Go pick up one of the Harry Potter books and check the voices. It may be a fantastic imaginary world, but the voices of the students (and adults) are authentic. Remember, voice is more than quoted speech. It is a convincing presentation of how that character sees the world.

If a story isn’t reeling you in, again stop and ask why not. You could even make some notes, the beginning of a writer’s journal. Yes, that was a hint.

Reading as a writer is a very useful exercise. You almost cannot become a writer without making a regular practice of it.

Finding a person of that rare breed who will read your story (no, not your Mom) and give you feedback on what convinced them they were inside the head of the character –  or spoiled the illusion that they were –  is worth diamonds.

Lapses from using the right voice may not be what spoiled your story. But getting voice right is a huge step towards success.

Further reading? Ch13, ‘Voices’, Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, link below.

Published by Julia Archer

Julia is a world traveler, a writer of adult and teen fiction, and a keen photographer and reader.

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