Finding Your Voice

Tuesday May 31, 2011 | By Hieronymus Hawkes | Uncategorized

voices.jpgPoint of view is a basic building block of writing a story.  It’s the vantage point from which a story is told.  When done well, it can really make your story pop.  First person is obvious; you are in the head of the main character and stay there.  2nd person is a little strange, and rarely used in story form, but puts the reader into the story, referring to “you” instead of the “I” of 1st person.   3rd person is the most commonly used form for narratives and has many forms, from Omniscient, where you see into everyone’s head, to Objective, where you see into nobody’s head, to Subjective, where you have the point of view of a particular character.  Subjective seems to be coming into vogue, and to me, it gives you, the writer, a lot more options to do interesting things.   Limited 3rd person POV falls in this category and I’m using it for my current WIP.  I started with the story in 1st person, but I decided to bring in a second main character, so I needed to change up how I was writing it.

Limited 3rd person POV gives you the flexibility to change points of view and stay in the head of the narrator for that section.   It is very similar to first person, but allows you to tell the story from more than one character, and if there are parts of the story that your main character won’t see but you want to share this can really add a lot to your narrative.  Or maybe you just want to bring in a different view point to see something from a different angle.

Another subcategory is the unreliable narrator, which adds another flavor to the story.  This from

The opposite of a reliable narrator, an unreliable narrator typically displays characteristics or tendencies that indicate a lack of credibility or understanding of the story. Whether due to age, mental disability or personal involvement, an unreliable narrator provides the reader with either incomplete or inaccurate information as a result of these conditions.

Done well it will really draw in and perhaps down a path that may be misleading, as you can’t be sure what you are experiencing is reality or just how the character perceives it.

I do have a pet peeve though and nothing bothers me more as a reader than when the author jumps from one person to another in successive paragraphs without so much as a breath, especially if they are very similar in perspective and style.  I really dislike it, so I’m switching chapters for each change, at least until my main characters come together in the story.  I may switch those to chapter changes as well after I finished reading a book by one of my favorite writers.

I just finished William Gibson’s latest novel, zero history, and it’s a work of literary art in my opinion.   His best work I think and I’ve read all of his novels.   It is a study in character development and the use of limited 3rd person POV and a well done unreliable narrator in the character of Milgrim, a recovering addict.  There is one particular scene that really stood out as a great example of how to differentiate your voice when looking through the eyes of a different character.  In this setting each character climbs a stairway in the Salon du Vintage in Paris separately.

Hollis Henry — She went with them, up a minimalist stairway of pale Scandinavian wood,…

Milgrim — …he climbed a handsomely renovated stairway to the second floor.


In these short sentence fragments you can see how the world looks differently and how Gibson shows it.  She notices the type of wood used and the architectural design.  Milgrim just sees a newly renovated stairwell that he is favorably impressed with and little other detail, because he just doesn’t know architecture or materials.  It’s a very small piece in a novel filled with details like this.  But this is the stuff that sets the really great writers apart from the average.

Every character should have a distinct voice that the reader should be able to pick up without you having to put up a neon sign.  It can be tricky.  You don’t want to start overdoing the speech idiosyncrasies; a little goes a long way.  Men and women are different, but not so different that you turn them into caricatures.  They should see the world differently, as they bring their prejudices and expertise, or lack thereof, to their viewpoint, but it’s little things.  As the example shows, in the long view, many little things add up to a nice tally at the bottom of the balance sheet.

Good luck in your writing!


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