Sunday, April 27, 2008

If You Have a Choice, Choose a Strong Voice

BookEnds has a guest post today about voice. Voice seems like that ever-elusive, hard to capture but easy to spot element that can absolutely sell a book. And the lack of which can sink a book, even one of strong character and plot. I recently read an article about how to write well takes a devotion much like method acting: become your character - get inside their skin.

My own opinion is this is easier with first person than with third person.

With the book I am writing, I deliberately chose first person to allow Bab's quirky side and very Texas roots come through. By taking her voice instead of my own, the story has come alive much more than my first book, in which the narrator is really a outside, objective, and frankly, a boring storyteller. Try as I might in that first work, I had the hardest time infusing personality into a narrator which was only a disembodied (and uninvolved) voice.

Editorial Anonymous addressed that this week in a great post on voice as well. She answered a question that I've been pondering a lot lately: Is it possible to have a really strong voice in the third-person narrator?

Her answer: absolutely! And to prove it, she gives excerpts from books with strong third-person voice. My favorite is this example from Ivy and Bean, one of my daughter's favorite book series:

It all began because Bean was playing a trick on her older sister. Bean's older sister was named Nancy. She was eleven. Nancy thought Bean was a pain and a pest. Bean thought Nancy was a booger-head.

That one word, booger-head, sets a tone, and essentially establishes the side the narrator will take. It places the narrator more at Bean's level of maturity instead of an adults. It is playful. It's exactly the kind of book a seven year old girl would love.

This post, especially with all the examples, focuses on how important word choice is. It's important to know whose side you are on as the narrator. Writing novels isn't like writing the news (or at least how the news is suppose to be: objective!). As writers, we can choose to identify with a character. Even if we do it as a third person narrator.

The most difficult part for me as a writer is to let go of who I am and to allow myself to be someone else. There are times I start to write things and stop because it is not something I would do or say. If it goes against my own beliefs, for example, or if it is harsh, or mean, or emphatically politically incorrect. Babs, for example, uses the word fat a lot. For people. To their faces. She isn't trying to be mean, but she just "calls 'em as she sees 'em."

Of course, that one only made me wince a teesy bit. There is a whole element of the story I am approaching now that deals with religion. I find myself not wanting to step on anyone's toes. Not offend anyone. And then I realize, this isn't about me. It isn't me saying these words; it isn't my history - my baggage. If I write it the way my life is, or the way I think, I completely lose Babs. Her voice disappears. And frankly, my own voice isn't that interesting.

For all the agents that write about queries, I wish there were equal amounts of posts on voice, because it seems to me that if you can capture that, the rest will fall into place. Including the query.

Do you think first person is easier than third person to create a strong voice?
What books do you know that have strong voices that drew you in immediately?


  1. You know, this is interesting. I am just finishing up (!!) my darling WIP, and it is in third person. The next novel that fought off all the comers seems to want to be in first person...and I haven't the foggiest on how to produce that.

    I do think, however, one of the best first persons I've ever read were the Diana Gabaldon books. I find Claire enthralling. Third person of course Harry Potter springs to mind, and there is a recent First person Helen of Troy book that I liked the voice of. They need to be unique, and have something to set them apart to really make them work in first though...butyou know, having Texas shine through is a sure-fire way of that happening. :)

    I have to read back through my WIP when it's done and see how my voice is. I'll come back to your (and the bookends post) stuff and read them through before I start.

    Great post!

  2. I love writing in first person, I love becoming someone else on paper. I hope it doesn't get to be a crutch!

    I'll have to go back tonight and read those links. Voice is fascinating to me. Think of LOTTERY. Also, when I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD finally last summer, I was blown away.

    I know exactly what you mean, about who the story belongs to. One of my favourite characters is a very nasty guy. I wouldn't like him much in real life. But oh my gosh, he was so much fun to write. He did and said stuff I'd never say in real life.

    I winced all the way through that project and it still makes me cringe. There must be something wrong with -- it's my own book, it makes me uncomfortable and I love it.

    (I think your own voice is interesting! But, like you said, this isn't YOUR story! Babs sounds like a hoot though, y'know.)

  3. JKB - I agree that for first person to work well it has to be really good - almost over the top. And it amazed me reading some of the examples that sometimes it isn't the whole of the story, but just a few really well chosen words that make it stand out.

    Don't be afraid of starting the next one in first person. Try it out for a few chapters. If you are still unsure of it, then go back and change it to third and see if that is stronger.

    I'm actually fairly convinced that the story in you will tell you how to be written. If it is telling you first, then I'll bet that's the right way to go.

    I was uncomfortable with first person too, but now I love it. For this one. It would never have worked with my first one, though.

    Heidi - I almost mentioned Lottery, because that is the book that stood out so well to me too, but I've mentioned it so often lately I didn't want to seem like I had some stake in the royalties! :)

    The whole part about being afraid to abandon myself to Babs is really an entirely different post, but since it had to do with voice,too, I thought I'd throw it in.

    I think it's amazing you love to do that. I've heard other writers saying that,too. For me, it's really hard. There is a part of me that loves all my characters and so I want others to like them, too. But when I go to tweak them to be more likable, it's like lying.

    So good for you for creating a nasty character you are true to, and for being brave about throwing him out there! I'm still working on it!

  4. Heidi, I am preparing the next book now. I FINISHED on friday! That is a nice feelig. Now my little darling will languish for three weeks (where I have taken a four day weekend to read through and edit. LOL)

    I loved Lottery too. Perry L is a huge favourite ofmine.

    How is the book coming along?

  5. Congrats!! What a huge accomplishment!

    As for mine: I've come to a slow part that I am plodding through, trying to make it just right instead of just writing. Sigh. I really need a good writer's group to give me some feedback. I have no idea if it's actually any good.

    I can't wait to hear about your new book!