This essay is reposted with permission from the author. It was originally found on writers-village.org
Here’s a powerful–and clever–way to bring your characters alive, as flesh and blood creatures. It’s ‘new’ in the sense that few authors seem to have heard of it. Sure, we can characterize our people as unique by the different ways they think and speak. Every author does that. But is there a better approach? One that gives our characters a wondrous depth? Yes! says author Josh Bertetta. It’s called narrative voice. And here’s how you can use it.
As writers we want to tell a story, a good story. We want our characters to fascinate our readers. We want them to be well-rounded, to possess the depth and complexity of real human beings with all their quirks, foibles, conflicts and obsessions. How do we do that?
Through narrative and dialogue. And that depends upon the ‘voice’ we choose.
We want to give each of our characters unique voices.
Of course, we can do that using the character’s ‘literal’ voice: the one with which he or she speaks in dialogue.
But what about narrative voice?
Is there a difference? Yes, and it’s a big one! Let me explain …
I have written an epic historical fantasy, a trilogy. It has four primary characters. Not only did I want my characters to speak with unique voices (their ‘literal’ voices), I wanted the voices of the scenes in which they appeared to reflect their personalities too.
This is the narrative voice.
What’s the first thing we must do to define that unique voice? Know our characters! What makes them tick? What do they desire and fear? What are their values, their talents? What are their key existential issues? And on and on…
Above all, how does your character see the world and their place in it?
In other words, what is their ‘mindset’?
Let me use just two of my characters as examples of ‘mindsets’.
As a writer, I seek that perfect word or phrase, as we all do. But when I fall in love with a word, I ask myself: does it fit my character? If the answer’s ‘no’, I drop it.
Here’s one of my characters, Jen.
He’s scientifically-minded. He values real, factual, concrete and verifiable information. He prefers specific examples over generalities. He defines the world in terms of boundaries. He prefers distance over intimacy.
Are you starting to get a picture of Jen?
In contrast, Rahim is outward-oriented and sensually-minded. He desires intimacy and contact. He defines the world in terms of human relationships and sensory experience.
They’re utterly different characters. Their personalities dictate the language they use, both in their speech and private thoughts.
And their ‘mindsets’ dictate the narrative voice I use for their scenes.
For example, when I’m writing in Jen’s ‘voice’ I use a formal style as if I’m writing a research paper, meticulously precise in its language. Rahim’s narrative, on the other hand, is looser, more conversational. It relies heavily on sensual allusions and metaphor.
Here are two illustrations. Note the difference in both writing style and word choice. Can you tell which passage is written from Jen’s perspective? And which from Rahim’s?
“Cupped in her jasmine hands, he drifted past cheeks flawless as the gazelle’s oceanic eyes and eddied around agate lips before he crested her gentle chin; he paused to gaze across her prone resplendent body and watch the tides of breath wax and wane in this - this moment of sailing under a million stars expanding…”
“His face a face without a framework: his pinched left eye, just a little smaller than the ovoid right, hung just a little lower and rested in line with the bridge of his foreshortened nose; his lower lip was thicker than the top; the left corner of his slightly diagonal mouth inclined toward the general lack of a jaw bone… If any symmetry balanced his head, you could find it in the crude, yet equal, beveling to his chin and brow.”
In each case, I have exaggerated the style to make the point. Your own approach might be more subtle. But the differences are clear, aren’t they?
The former is written from Rahim’s perspective; the latter, from Jen’s. The first uses metaphors to describe a young girl and the latter gives a literal description of a man’s face in terms of its spatial characteristics.
These passages don’t convey the characters’ own thoughts or speech, their literal voices. The style in each case is mine, the author’s. Instead, each passage suggests their personalities through the narrative voice in which it’s written.
Narrative voice is a wonderful technique.
Master it and you will be able to portray or deepen a character’s personality, obliquely, by the voice that you choose for every scene.
And narrative voice can be extended to every aspect of style. How about sentence structure, cadence and diction?
For example, when I write Jen, I tend to employ short, simple sentences. For Rahim I use longer complex sentences that emphasize rhythm. Those differences in sentence structure reinforce the way that Jen and Rahim relate to the world.
To underscore Jen’s distance from people I make his narrative voice as objective as possible. However, Rahim’s desire for intimacy with the outer world requires not just metaphor, but an informal, conversational style suggestive of relationship.
Diction is also important in ‘narrative voice’.
Take a person with a body that is narrow at the top and wider toward the bottom. One might describe them as being pear-shaped. But if I were to apply the word ‘pear shaped’ to someone while writing Jen, it wouldn’t fit. But Rahim? Yes.
What do I do if Jen comes across someone who is pear-shaped? I use ‘pyriform’ which means ‘pear-shaped’. Again, if someone smiles and that smile is a big bright curve of a smile, I might, when writing Rahim, say the smile is ‘moon-shaped’. But when writing Jen I would prefer ‘luniform’.
Jen is scientifically minded so he doesn’t ‘breathe’. He ‘aspirates’. He doesn’t ‘see’ things, he ‘observes’ or ‘perceives’. Where I might use ‘citron’ for ‘yellow’ when writing Rahim, I might use ‘jaundiced’ when writing Jen. And so on.
Diction is yet another way to bring your narrative voice in line with how your characters perceive the world, and relate to it. Like metaphor and sentence structure, it replicates their mindset, their essential personality.
I teach Religious Studies and use the metaphor of colored sunglasses to discuss perspective. We all wear our own ‘colored sunglasses’, as it were. The color determines how we see and relate to the world. As writers, we should know the color of the sunglasses our characters wear–in other words, how they see the world.
And in knowing how they see the world, we can convey their unique vision through our narrative voice.