Voice is one of those things that agents, editors, and readers want us to get right, but it's so hard to nail, particularly when you're writing in third person. I read books like The Raven Boys (Stiefvater) and Shadow and Bone (Bardugo) and I'm blown away by the crystal clear voice; I can see that the voice can be strong in a third person novel, though I'm not sure exactly how to achieve it myself. That's why I'm loving today's post by Jodie Renner. She just been accepted as part of the team at The Kill Zone blog, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to share spot-on, practical tips for creating a strong third-person voice.
Some examples of strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.
These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view — especially with such fascinating characters! But we can create an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep not only the dialogue, but all of the narration (observations and explanations) for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, colored by their background, personality, attitudes, and mood. Also, try to have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view, as it’s their story.
TO CREATE A STRONG THIRD-PERSON VOICE:
Start with a character readers will identify with and root for. Your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some vulnerability and inner conflict. Then be sure to show his world and the events unfolding around him through his eyes and ears, not the author’s, or that of an omniscient narrator.
Write the narration from the character’s point of view, too. Stay in your character’s POV for the observations, descriptions, and explanations, too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, neutral, authorial point of view — show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.
Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:
Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.
Suzie peered around the tree again to watch. The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.
Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.
Suzie peered around the tree again to watch. The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.
To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.
Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?
Don’t intrude as the author to explain things to the readers. Even explanations of points should be presented through the characters, perhaps in a dialogue with disagreement and attitude. Be on the lookout for where you step in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world — and out of the fictive dream.
TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE POV CHARACTER’S VOICE:
Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.
Use stream-of-consciousness journaling. To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this wording to show his personality more in the scenes.
Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back. Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two, in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.
Write with attitude! To bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice and wording, with lots of attitude!
Fiction writers and readers: what are your thoughts on this? Do you have any more tips for developing an authentic, appealing voice? Leave a comment to enter a draw for a free e-copy of Jodie’s prize-winning craft-of-writing book Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction
Show Your Setting through Your POV Character
Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy
Concrete Tips for Developing an Appealing Voice in Your Fiction