- General

Developing Your Narrative Voice in Fiction

The Voice

The creative voice is as famous in fiction writing as it is in music, albeit not the same way. Everyone who has taken a creative writing course or read a lot of books knows about this. It seems to be one of those strange phenomenon: once one knows it, one just gets it. Nevertheless, it remains a traditional mystery of the written word and the creative art of novelists and fiction story writers.

How to

What most students of creative writing want to know about ‘voice’ is how to imbue their written work with one, and even more deeply how to develop their own and how to share it with others. For some reason it doesn’t seem as straightforward as it does with the spoken word and regular voice.

Many journalists are also forced to use some voice other than their own when they start their writing careers, and in truth many a ghostwriter learns to imitate the written voice of others more than learning to hone their own.

One reason for that is that the art of the written word is similar to that of painting in the sense that “imitating the Masters” is one of the best ways to build skill in the field. Musicians also know this: learn to play the music of the great composers to achieve excellence in skill with your instrument.

As an exercise, describe yourself, or a pet or friend. Write it up from the perspective of yourself, then try at least 2 other perspectives. See how it is the same and how it becomes different. Once you write them all up, and re-read them, if you can, dare to share and get feedback from others on a forum or in person.

Creativity versus Skill

The reality is that some folks find it easier or more natural to be creative while others feel much more comfortable with honing their skill at something but feel a bit nonplussed if asked to be creative. This is true across numerous fields, and the arts are no exception.

Narrative Voice

Skill is always helpful, and in general should be considered mandatory. The best way to get it aside from copying greats of literature, is to practice. Students are advised to try writing in a way that feels natural but to also experiment with what doesn’t. Success can be surprising. There’s no reason to assume that Arthur Conan Doyle planned to have Dr. Watson – also a character in the stories, to narrate the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and yet one of the reasons for the success of those tales is exactly that: a narrator with so much character, that he’s in the stories as a character! I’ve even heard of a lady who has had much greater financial success as soon as she started using an imaginary voice of her pet dog as the narrator. Notice in both cases, the “author’s unique voice” is not the narrator, but there is a narrative voice as part of the over all piece of work. It can be a little confusing for those trying creative writing; it is a bit like “levels of mind”: the author, then the narrator, then any character or characters.

Narrative POV (point of view)

First person narrative is when the short story or novel is written from the main character’s subjective perspective. Normally, there should be either no resemblance or only the vaguest or most oblique relationship between the character’s subjective point of view and the author. In this case, the author has no choice but to understand the main character and limit the communication to that perspective.

Third person narrative is more of the “fly on the wall” type of perspective. This vantage point can be very objective, or not even remotely. This is the place where an author has to decide about devising a narrative voice. Narrators can range from wanting to not even be noticed – more of a ‘window onto the story’ approach, to the other extreme of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories where the narrator is actually the side kick of Sherlock Holmes and has a very active role in the stories.

Third person omniscient. This is a type of narrative position which enables the written work of stories and novels to be different from most TV and film and playwriting. In this type of narration, the author reads the minds of characters at will, and is able to share such information with the reader. The written form is particularly well suited to this, as is conversation amongst people in ordinary life.

So, how to learn to write with narrative voice in fiction. Experimentation can be most helpful. The greatest adepts of creative writing can change their narrative voices to suit the genre, the project, the context and yet somehow also leave fans feeling absolutely certain of who the author was, and how distinctive he or she really is, as a literary artist.

The best type of narration may vary from tale to tale. Whether a book flies or fails may well hinge on which narrative device is applied.