Many readers and editors state that a strong voice immediately draws them into a story, and one of the most important voices will come from your viewpoint character. But even when you’ve developed their personality and voice, it can still be tricky to actually get them on the page. Here are nine dos and don’ts to help out.
Hi all, September C. Fawkes here, back to talk more about voice. Last month, I broke down how voice works at three levels: the author, the narrator, and the characters each have their own voices. Voice is essentially that person’s personality, as it shows up on the page. In my opinion, when broken down, voice is made up of two things:
What the Person Thinks or Talks About + How They Say It = Voice
And this equation works at any level.
Most of the time these days, the narrator will actually be the same as the viewpoint character. Whether they are written in first person or third person, the majority of stories are written from a character’s perspective.
Yet even when we know the voice equation, it can sometimes still be tricky to actually figure out how to get that voice on the page. So today I wanted to share some things that do work well, and some things that don’t.
Avoid These 4 Things When Crafting Viewpoint (or Narrative) Voice
1. “Always” Sentence Structures
(Ex. always talks in long sentences or short sentences)
When looking at developing voice, it might seem like a good idea to play with sentence structure–heck, it is a good idea, to an extent. But if you are too rigid with it, there are problems. The most obvious is that trying to read a story where every sentence is about the same length is usually a terrible experience. Beyond that, sentence structure is also used to control pacing, tone, and emotional experience. If you get too locked into a specific type of sentence structure, you doom other parts of storytelling. Besides, most people don’t adhere to a specific structure, constantly, in real life either.
2. Dominating Emotions that Undercut the Story
If you are writing in a voice where the viewpoint character almost always sounds calm or relaxed–guess what? Chances are it’s going to minimize the tension you have in your story. Because if they are calm, the reader is probably calm. If they aren’t worried, the reader probably isn’t worried. The only way you can get away with this consistently, is if you are writing a story with very high stakes at every turn, so that the calmness is a counterpoint that adds humor or irony.
Likewise, a character who is consistently sad about whatever, might start to sound melodramatic–and when you get to the really sad part later in the story, it won’t be as powerful, because we’ve already spent so much time feeling sad. In short, frankly, some dominating emotions work better as a viewpoint character’s voice than others. Avoid those that are going to undercut the power of your story.
3. Stock Voices
Once in a while you run into a character voice that sounds like a hundred other character voices of that genre. For example, YA is known for protagonists having snarky voices. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but if you do have a viewpoint character whose voice sounds similar to many others, find a way to individualize it. Lots of people are snarky. But they are snarky in their own ways. How is your character snarky?
4. Pretty Much “Always” Anything
One of the problems I sometimes see as an editor, is that the text is trying so hard to be voicey, that it’s annoying. Like almost anything in writing, if you go too extreme, for too long, the reader can’t wait to close the book. The same thing can happen with voice. We sometimes hear people say things like, “Every viewpoint character sounded totally different and unique!” In reality, while someone may have felt that way, I’m willing to bet there wasn’t that much “total” about it. Usually the most successful voices today aren’t “always” anything, but instead regularly something specific–a dash of snark here and a dash of slang there.
In this sense, it’s okay to have a character who regularly talks in a particular sentence structure or who has regular lines of a particular emotion. But if you have a reoccurring viewpoint character who has a voice that is always _______–chances are it’s going to get annoying and be very difficult to sustain over a whole book.
This is not to say you can’t do this with minor characters–characters who aren’t viewpoint characters, or characters who are viewpoint characters only very briefly, like in a teaser. But if this is a viewpoint character that needs to sustain a big part of the story, avoid “always” extremes. And again, they can actually limit your ability to tell a great story.
Sure, all rules can be broken, but these are good guidelines for almost all stories.
Do These 5 Things When Crafting Viewpoint (or Narrative) Voice
1. Regularly Use Point 4 POV Penetration
Point of view is more than picking first, second, or third person. It’s also about how deep the prose gets into that character’s mind and experience. This is called point of view penetration. As far as I can tell, there are four points on the POV penetration spectrum.
Here they are from the most distant to the closest:
(Point 1) Out of breath, Todd wiped the sweat off his face and fanned himself. He got a glass of cold water.
(Point 2) Todd was thinking about how hot it was outside as he got a glass of cold water.
(Point 3) It’s freaking hot outside, Todd thought, like the devil’s oven. He got a glass of cold water, even though it wouldn’t do anything to fight the heat. Better than nothing, Todd thought.
(Point 4) It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil’s oven. A glass of cold water wouldn’t do squat, but it was better than nothing.
Notice the first example shows that Todd thinks it’s hot from the outside. In the last example, the prose takes on his thoughts and attitude and we know he thinks it’s hot from the inside. Point 4 is the most effective place to be to get viewpoint character or narrative voice on the page.
Note that the last example, Point 4, is “showing” and “telling” simultaneously. The writer is “showing” us the thought process in the character’s head, but humans (usually) think in “telling” sentences. Don’t shy away from deep penetration because you have been told it’s “telling” and that “telling” is bad. This kind of “telling” is “showing,” when used correctly (but always use good judgment).
BONUS TIP: When switching to a new viewpoint character, it’s often (though not always) best to get to Point 4 quickly. This is where the strongest voices reside.
2. Utilize Comparisons (Similes and Metaphors)
What your viewpoint character chooses to compare something to will tell us a lot. If he compares the color of the sky to the white static on the television, we know he spends more time around or thinking about t.v. than he does nature. Consider what matters to your character and what he or she spends her time doing and thinking, and try mining that for an apt comparison. If you are introducing a new viewpoint, this is a great way to start building a sense of his or her voice. This also works well to convey the character’s mood for the scene. If he uses a comparison that is negative, we will probably assume he is in a negative mood. So consider your character’s emotions (even dominating emotions) as well.
3. Differentiate the Inner World from the Outer World
We all think and experience things that we don’t share. In fact, some of what we think and experience is at odds with what we share. There should probably be at least a slight deviation with your viewpoint character too. And if this happens at POV Point 4, even better (usually). What the character thinks about and experiences privately and how it is rendered in the text, will tell us a lot about the person. When it is at odds with what is presented, readers want to know why–which gives you another opportunity to further define your character’s viewpoint.
4. Add Lines that Speak to Worldview
Watch for opportunities to slide in a worldview your character has about something that comes up in the story. Maybe someone your viewpoint character is listening to references the police. Assuming it suits the passage and pacing, go ahead and slide in a brief line that clues us into what that character thinks about the police. Are they “pigs”? Protectors? Are they crooked? Or unappreciated?
5. Sprinkle in Unique, Surface Specifics
You can actually get away with not doing this and still have a great character voice. But if you want the voice to feel more defined, it can be useful to sprinkle in one, two, or three surface quirks. Just remember that anything taken to an extreme can become annoying. So the keyword here is “sprinkle.” In some scenes, you may sprinkle more generously than others, depending on the needs and tone of the scene. But you won’t be dumping the sprinkles on in every paragraph through the whole book.
The quirk might be favorite words (Jack Sparrow says “savvy” and Smeagol says “precious”) or regional phrases (in Utah, we are known for having a lot of strange “swears,” such as “Oh my heck!”, “flip”, and “Son of a biscuit!”). It can also be something related to the prose. One character may be prone to using sentence fragments while another is a bit more generous with the dashes. Or maybe one occasionally gets distracted and goes off topic in the narration a bit.
Just make sure what you pick makes sense for your character.
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years, with nearly seven of those years under David Farland. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. She also runs an award-winning writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com and serves as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers. When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.
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