Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writer’s Ramble: Using Voice to Enhance Point of View

You can find a lot of blog entries about point of view (POV), so I’m not going to spend time going through all that.  What I’m going to talk about here is how to use narrative voice to enhance the POV of your story.

Voice in First Person
Voice is easiest to see in first person stories.  Most good first person stories will capture a little bit of the POV character’s attitude, and convey it to the reader as they tell the story.  You get all kinds of things, like their philosophy on life, their opinions of people, what they think of politics, God—you name it.  That’s the whole point.  You want to make your character feel alive, and authentic.  Bring it down to the reader’s level, and make them feel like the point of view character is their best friend.

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under 'Wizards'. Believe it or not, I'm the only one there…

You'd be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I'm serious. But then, if you'd seen the things I'd seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you'd wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

Storm Front
Jim Butcher

The first-person stories that really stand out for me are the ones where I can hear the main character tell the story inside my head.  When I’m done, I feel like I’ve sat and listened to him tell me the story.

So, here’s a short exercise for you.  Pick a paragraph or a page from the novel you’re working on.  Re-write the section in first person, then spice it up with what the POV character is thinking.  Make sure you capture the emotional reactions that they feel, bring out their inner dialogue so the reader knows what their thought processes are, then punctuate the character’s responses with attitude and a bit of emotion.

Voice in Third Person
There are two ways you can treat voice when writing third person.  The first way is do exactly what I described above in first person, but shift every instance of I, me, or we to he, she, or they.  And there you have it.  Here is a really good example from a book I thoroughly enjoyed:

“Okies.” The Portuguese farmer spat on the ground, giving the evil eye to the passing automobiles weighed down with baskets, bushels, and crates.  The cars just kept coming up the dusty San Joaquin Valley road like some kind of Okie wagon train.  He left to make sure all  his valuables were locked up and his Sears & Roebuck single-shot 12 gauge was loaded.

The tool shed was locked and the shotgun was in his hands when the short little farmer returned to watch.

One of the Fort Model Ts rattled to a stop in front of the farmer’s fence.  The old farmer leaned on his shotgun and waited.  His son would talk to the visitors.  The boy spoke English.  So did he, but not as well, just good enough to take the Dodge truck into Merced to buy supplies, and it wasn’t like the mangled inbred garbage dialect the Okies spoke was English anyway.

Hard Magic
Larry Correia

Spunky little Portuguese farmer living in California during the dust bowl.  He’s got a 12 gauge shotgun and a 12-gaugage attitude.  He doesn’t like Oakies.

See how all that just kind of brings out the story more?  The author didn’t waste time telling how dry it was, or painting a picture of the San Joaquin Valley, or any of that.  The focus stayed on the short farmer with the shotgun, who was making sure the drifters moved on and didn’t trespass on his land.

Lots of attitude.  I may like the little guy or I may end up hating him.  One way or another, I feel like I am really getting to know him.

Narrator Voice
Now let’s talk about the other way to put Voice into third person.  Pretend that you’re sitting and listening a storyteller, who is not one of the characters in the story, but is perhaps someone who was a first-hand witness to everything that you’re about to hear.  In this technique, the narrator becomes another character within the story.  The emphasis is not so much character attitudes and inner dialogue (though you can definitely put that in there), but to give the reader a stronger feeling of time and place:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The Fellowship of the Ring
J. R. R. Tolkien

Rowling is really good at this.  You feel comfortable right away, and slip easily into the story.

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Harry Potter, and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J. K. Rowling

The narrator can be omniscient and know everything that all the characters are thinking, or he can have no insight whatsoever and just comment on what the camera sees.  However, you have to be careful that the narrator doesn’t call too much attention to himself, or the reader will get pulled out of the story.

So essentially you have two techniques.  In the first technique, you focus on attitudes, personality, and inner thought processes. Your focus is to give your readers a strong overall impression of what your characters are like, with the ultimate goal of giving your reader a feeling that they know your characters.

The second technique emphasizes the narrator as an additional character.  The goal is to evoke the mood and the setting within your story, while your reader sits and watches the action.

Let me know what you think.  I’d love to examples from stories that you’ve run across.

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