I’m thirty thousand words into a new project. This is typically the point for me where a novel starts to find its feet, and this time is no different. The characters are becoming real to me, finding their own voices.
In my view, there is nothing more mysterious in this writing game than the development of a character’s narrative voice. This isn’t necessarily the same as the author’s own voice, although it can be. I researched some definitions. Wikipedia says this:
‘The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by “viewing” a character’s thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character’s experiences.’
The Editor’s Blog puts it like this.
‘Narrative voice is the look and feel and sound of story as it’s relayed through writer, narrator, and viewpoint character. So, yes, it’s tone and style. But it’s also attitude. And it’s focus—what does the narrator point out and what is ignored? And it includes the method through which that look and feel and sound are conveyed to the reader—through thoughts or letters or the direct report of events. And it includes the distance and relationship between narrator and the people and events he is watching. (A narrator may be aloof and observational or up close in the thick of the action.)’
So … trying to define and explain narrative voice, is a bit like trying to nail down a shadow. Nevertheless, a point-of-view character must have one. It’s not helpful to regard voice development as a magical thing, that fortuitously appears in a puff of purple smoke.
My work-in-progress is in third person, with two viewpoint characters narrating the story. They come complete with their own baggage and biases, strength and flaws. How can I convincingly speak for them? How to prevent them from all sounding the same – or worse still – from all sounding like me? Syntax and diction are important. Devices like verbal tics and idiosyncratic turns of phrase are useful, as long as they’re not overdone. (Have you ever tried to make sense of Joseph’s Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights?) However these are purely adjustments made around the edges. They don’t by themselves create a distinctive voice.
Some people write detailed summaries in order to get to know their characters. They know what their characters had for breakfast last Sunday. They know them better than their own wives and husbands. I’m not one of those writers.
On reflection, what I find most useful is to discover one essential truth about a character – their driving force, their deepest fear, their wound perhaps. Who, in their heart of hearts, do they believe themselves to be? Are they misguided? We all have a fundamental, core belief about ourselves that usually remains hidden. Take Clare in Currawong Creek, for example. She mistakenly believes that career success is the only path to self-worth. The driving force for Quinn in Turtle Reef, is the guilt he feels at not measuring up in his father’s eyes, even though his father has feet of clay.
At thirty thousand words in my new manuscript, the two main characters have come to life. I understand the central truths about them, and their unique voices are finally ringing loud and clear.