Writing Tips: Point of View and Voice, part III — Voice and Authenticity

A couple of days ago, in the second installment of my Writing Tips series on Point of View and Voice, I focused on how I decide how many characters to use as POV characters, and how I choose which characters would make the most effective narrators.

There is a second element to these decisions about point of view that relate more to voice and the authenticity of the narration, and these are the choices I’d like to talk about today.

The most basic of these choices  can be summarized fairly easily:  Do you intend to tell your story in first person or third person?  First person, of course, means that the story is told in the “I” voice.  “I did this,” “I said that,” “My life was in danger.”  Third person replaced “I,” “me,” “my” with “he,” “him,” “his,” or “she,” “her,” “hers.”  I suppose you could say that there is a third choice:  Writing the story in second person, so that the story is told by projecting the reader into the narrative.  “You do this;” “you say that,” etc.  This is NOT a voice that is used often, and as a literary device it is likely to fall flat in today’s market unless handled by a master.  For the purposes of this post, we’ll confine our discussion to first and third person.

As I mentioned briefly in my first post in this series, the advantage of first person is that it lends a visceral quality to the narrative.  There is almost no distance between the point of view character and the reader.  Everything is immediate, powerful.  Again, it is one thing to have a friend tell you that someone she knows was in a car wreck.  It is another thing entirely to have your friend tell you that she was in a car wreck.  First person brings that level of emotional and experiential power to your story.  It can be particularly effective in urban fantasies and mysteries with a single POV character, as it allows the reader to experience the unraveling of the mystery and the danger of the investigation first hand.

THIEFTAKER, by D. B. Jackson, jacket art by Chris McGrathNow you may ask, if first person POV is so powerful, why doesn’t everyone use it?  Well for one thing, in books with multiple POV characters, that would quickly get pretty confusing.  Second, there are times when that lack of distance between character and reader is not only less effective, but actually awkward.  Thieftaker is a perfect example.  On the one hand, it is an urban fantasy with a strong mystery element.  It would seem to lend itself perfectly to first person POV, and in fact, I did consider writing it in first person.  But there is also the historical angle to consider.  There are times when I need to step away from the narrative briefly and, without resorting to the dreaded data dump, explain a historical event or situation.  When I do this, I always remain in the head of my POV character, Ethan Kaille — I maintain his voice, I explain things as he would consider them in his thoughts.  But even so, it would sound contrived and a bit awkward doing this in first person.  That slight distance offered by third person POV allows me to give these explanations in a more natural way.

In this way, third person POV can also be more appropriate and effective for epic alternate world fantasies in which magic systems and aspects of worldbuilding sometimes need some brief explanation.  Let me reiterate, third person POV is not an excuse to step out of a character’s head and just dump information on our readers.  But it is a slightly distancing voice that allows us to give information that would sound odd in the more conversational tone of a first person narrative.

Of course, there is more to the voice of a point of view character than just the pronoun used to describe action and dialogue.  A perspective character needs to sound interesting, she needs to sound unique.  Readers need to hear in the thoughts and emotions of that character all of the history, all of the attributes, all of the quirks and strengths and flaws that they come to associate with that person.  Just as we bring our personalities to our views of all that we encounter and experience, so our POV characters should do the same.

Using narration in this way — relying on voice to strengthen character development — is what makes point of view such a crucial component of storytelling. We have to ask ourselves how our POV character would perceive the world.  Is s/he timid or bold?  Confident or full of self-doubt?  Passionate or stoic?  Sophisticated or not?  Young or old?  Moral or amoral?  Educated or not?  Privileged or not?  Every aspect of his or her personality can come to bear on the tone of his/her narration.  That is why I speak of point of view as being the nexus of narrative and character.  Because in using a character to convey storyline, in blending voice with plot, we strengthen both and make it possible for the arc of our stories and the development of our characters to happen simultaneously.

By honing our point of view character’s (or characters’) voice(s) in this way, we bring a level of authenticity to our storytelling.  We are no longer simply writing a story; we are instead allowing our characters to tell their stories.  And there is a world of difference between the two.

Think about this as you choose your point of view character and begin to develop the voice for your narrative.  It will strengthen your writing and enhance the experience of your readers.

Keep writing!

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