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The Writer’s Voice: Part 2 – Fiction - The Open College of the Arts
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The Writer’s Voice: Part 2 – Fiction

In my last blog I wrote about ‘voice’ in poetry, and how it’s closely connected to, but not quite the same as, style.

In fiction, ‘voice’ refers to the person who’s speaking, more commonly called ‘the narrator’ (it’s unusual to refer to the ‘narrator’ in poetry). The narrator may be a character in the story (as in first person narratives) or they may be someone telling the story but not actually present (as in third person narratives).

If the narrator is a character, at no point should the narrative voice slip out of that character’s voice. Sometimes the narrator is telling a story about something that happened to them a long time ago, and the narrator’s voice is therefore different from their voice as a character – it may be more sophisticated, which gives the writer greater scope in terms of vocabulary and the possibilities of reflective thought. The classic example of this technique is in The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953), in which the main character is elderly but looking back on the events of one summer when he was still a schoolboy. The narrative voice of elderly Leo is erudite and far more worldly than that of twelve-year-old Leo, and offers insights that as a boy he would not have had.

If the narrator is not a character, there are more options available to the writer in terms of the style of the narrative voice. However, it’s common for the narrative voice to have some qualities of the main character’s voice. It would be strange to read a novel about a hard-bitten detective being narrated in a warm, cosy voice, for example (Maeve Binchey writes Philip Marlowe?).

There are some writers who seem to have a distinctive voice; you can tell it’s them as soon as you start reading. Here are two examples of writers whose voices I find very compelling:

The morning sun was fairly beaming down and all the trees were heavy with green and there was a haze of flies and bugs and butterflies about the land and all he could do was think about how some lives are full to bursting with people and work and sport and fun and his own was all empty spaces where those things ought rightly to be, were he the kind of man that could close his fist around opportunity and keep a tight howlt of it rather than shrinking from it and hiding inside his parents’ house nearly too scared to even peep out for fear of failure and ridicule.

Donal Ryan (2014). The Thing About December. Dublin: Black Swan. p.121

I smelled that jagged fist and imagined how bad Ham would smash my face with it, but then Bellows, a Jehovah’s Witness with biceps bigger than my neck, came out of nowhere.

Wilson, D.W. (2013). Once You Break a Knuckle. London: Bloomsbury. p.46

Ryan’s novel is in third person, but the narrative voice is so close to the character’s voice that it’s as if the main character is telling the story. It’s an idiosyncratic voice, not quite grammatically correct, with some slang words and pronunciation (such as ‘howlt’ for ‘hold’), and Ryan makes use of repeated ‘ands’ to string a lot of ideas together, giving a sense of rising desperation as well as an impression of naivety.

D.W. Wilson’s voice is grittier and more no-nonsense and he uses a first person narrator, so the ‘voice’ of the narration is also the voice of the character. Remember that with first person narration, this voice has to be sustained for the entire novel or short story.

Emma Darwin has a blog on the difference between voice and style here in which she suggests ‘voice’ is a more useful term for writers than ‘style’. ‘Style’ is the way something is expressed, she says, whereas ‘voice’ is “the product of the storyteller’s consciousness, in other words: it’s human interface between the listener/reader, and the events of the story.” I must admit find this quite hard to get my head around. 

As with ‘voice’ in poetry, my view on ‘voice’ in fiction is that it’s something that will be naturally present, but will develop the more you hone your writing craft. With first person and close third person narration, if you focus on creating a convincing and distinctive main character, a lot of decisions about narrative voice will have been solved for you. The trick is to create their voice and stick to it.

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Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie

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