Tag Archives: point of view

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead, one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey. If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Truth.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

Head Hopping – the Forbidden POV

Want to start a passionate debate? Just mention head hopping.

When I started writing, I bravely went to my first writing workshop. I was berated for head hopping between two characters in one scene. I was devastated. What had I done wrong? More importantly, why had I thought I could do this? I was too scared, too naive to defend the ‘rule’ I had broken.

But, what exactly, is head hopping?

It’s about using multiple points of view. It isn’t third person omniscient point of view (POV) where the omniscient narrator can peer into anyone’s head anytime. An omniscient narrator maintains a god-like distance, giving a more objective rather than a subjective telling. The story is told in the narrator’s voice who doesn’t word thoughts and feelings in the characters’ voices. It isn’t a story told in close third person which has multiple viewpoints where the view point changes only when scenes change. When this happens, the scene is written using that character’s voice.

Head Hopping occurs when the POV within a scene skips from one character to another within that scene. Unlike the omniscient narrator, the voice changes and is unique to each character. Let’s look at an example:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in the midst of a mood. He’d have to settle the matter, then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet,” he said. Darned nuisance they are, always needing to be walked, he thought.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted. She was tired of going for walks alone when Stuart worked late at the office. A puppy would get her out of the house and she’d meet more people. “And don’t you want to be happy?”
The waiter hesitated before coming to the table. He hated serving arguing couples because they tended not to tip well.

Three heads in one scene. If you don’t mind head hopping, you’ll find the different points of view entertaining. If you don’t like it, you’d likely prefer a root canal.

Handled clumsily (as in this example), it looks like the Stuart is psychic, for how can he know what everyone else sees or thinks? That’s the main problem with it for the point of view character loses the ability to read the other character’s cues such as body language and actions.

Do we need to know what everyone thinks? If the information isn’t germane to moving the plot along, is it important? In the example, do we need to know what the waiter thinks? It may be important if it compels Stuart to react in the moment, but how can Stuart react when he hasn’t been allowed to see the waiter’s reaction? Here’s a version staying in Stuart’s point of view:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in a mood. He’d have to settle the matter and then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet Carrie,” he said. “Maybe later?” He glanced toward the waiter and caught his eye. Maybe Carrie would be more reasonable once they ordered.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted.
Stuart shook his head, saw the waiter hesitate and glared at him. What was it with this fellow? The waiter hurried to the table with a cheat sheet in hand while fumbling for the pen in his pocket.
“What would you like, sir?” he asked.
“Ladies first,” Stuart snapped.
Carrie’s eyes danced and before she looked to her menu, a slight grin appeared. Why did she find shoddy service so amusing? Stuart tapped his fingers on the white linen signaling for her to order.
“Ma’am?”
“Oh yes,” Carrie ran her finger down the page of entrees while Stuart drummed his fingers into the table. The waiter’s eyes darted to Stuart and back to Carrie. “The Chicken Kiev,” she finally said.
The waiter’s Adam’s apple bobbed, sweat formed on his brow. “We’re out of that,” he squeaked.
Stuart’s fingers drummed louder.
“Chicken Marsala?”
“I’m afraid–”
Stuart snorted. “What kind of a place is this if you can’t give a lady what she wants?”
“I want a puppy.”
The spilled Merlot was a sea of red flowing toward Carrie.

By choosing not to head hop, I found the scene easier to write, to escalate tension using the simple formula of action-reaction-action. This is the key difference: head hopping doesn’t allow a reader to get fully submerged in the story. By and large, stories with head hopping tend to feel more shallow because the author can’t go deep into any character’s head beyond a thought about something. Yet, the technique is used and very successfully by a few authors such as MC Beaton, Nora Roberts, Alexander McCall Smith and others. Sometimes we don’t want to be or need to be fully submerged in a point of view. Sometimes, we just want the story told, the clues laid out, to know the entire landscape without feeling the grass tickle our toes.

Those who love head hopping know to expect it. If you chose to write this way, ask yourself if you can build a following who will love and expect it. If it works for you – do it! But do it well or you’ll be dismissed as an amateur who doesn’t know the craft.

Doing it well means making sure that the signals as to whose head we’re in are clear, that the emotional experience for the reader is retained as is suspension of disbelief. If the reader is jarred out of the story and forced to reread to get their bearings, the writing has failed. Drama and tension must continue to build. Provide seamless transitions and ensure the head hopping moves the scene along.

As it turns out, I’m not a head hopping writer and it isn’t employed in the YA fantasy writing I do. But I read a lot of mystery and when I find it, I’m willing to head hop for the sake of the story. It’s fun, amusing and even an easy read when done well. It’s a cinematic way of telling a story where I don’t need to or even want to get deeply involved with the characters. I enjoy the clues and the bird’s eye view while the sleuth solves the mystery.

Git Er Dun: Using the Vernacular

One potentially powerful and useful tool to have in your toolbox is the ability to write in a certain vernacular that makes your characters memorable. Stylistic voicing has been successfully used by some great authors. Let’s take a look at those, and why they were successful.

 

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

One of the most memorable characters I can think of is Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is a staple for coming-of-age readers. It’s my favorite book, in fact. Why? Why did this book resonate with me so much? No, it’s not because I’m

Well, are you?

a sociopath, as many critical readers think of Holden. I loved the book because it was real.

We understand that this is the first time Holden has ever truly spoken his mind, consequences be damned. And we get a front row seat! His raw vernacular often includes calling people “phonies” and using “goddamn” as a consistent adjective. This usage of stylistic voicing achieved a certain authenticity. Whether Holden was right or wrong about the other characters being phonies, we never question for a minute that Holden is completely convinced that they are.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue

The book Room is told by a 5-year-old boy, Jack, whose main education is the television. Why? Because he is a captive, along with his mother, locked in a shed for years. Jack’s stylistic voicing is so convincing, so well constructed, that the reader is completely enveloped into Jack’s world, where he has only known the Room. He has never been outside. He hasn’t received any sort of education, apart from the one his mother tries to give him, which makes his sentence construction short and plain. He only describes what he sees, not knowing exactly what certain things mean. But you, the reader, know exactly what it means. And it makes your stomach churn and your heart ache.

You may want to pick up Room to see an excellent example of emotional transport with a stylistic narrative voice. It should also be noted that some readers simply could not get past the stylistic voicing. That is one of the risks you take when choosing a stylistic narration, but the rewards can be BIG. Room won Emma Donoghue over ten prestigious awards for her effort and risk.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Perhaps the most well-known example of using stylistic voice is Huck Finn. It was, in fact, the very first novel published to use American vernacular, or more specifically, regional dialect (an example:“Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.”). Huck is described as a pariah, son of the town drunk, and the other children wish they dared to be like him. That’s one hellova introduction. If Samuel Clemens decided to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in third person, I venture to say everyone would hate Huck. A bratty little kid, running around causing havoc. What Twain did so brilliantly was deciding to tell the story from Huck’s perspective, showing us the charm and charisma Huck has to offer, so we can’t help but love the little shit. Using stylistic voicing, Twain made us relate to an otherwise potentially annoying character.

 

You may have noticed that I chose all first-person novels, as well as young narrators. Can you think of any examples of stylistic voice using adults, told in third person? Was it as effective as a first-person stylistic voice?

If you’re on the edge about whether or not to write a character’s unique voicing, take heart. Mark Twain had never seen it before, but did it anyway. Emma Donoghue received some unkind reviews of Room because of her style choice, and probably cries about it in front of her wall full of awards. Just kidding. She doesn’t. And Holden Caulfield wouldn’t be one of the most notorious voices in literature if Salinger hadn’t let him. Tell your character’s story in the most authentic way possible, even if that includes letting him or her speak for him/herself.

 

Warrior. Iconoclast. Unicorn.

botfUnicorn stories. The topic seems geared towards wish-fulfillment for little girls, a more fantastical rendition of the “horsey” books so popular in the 1980s. As a child I consumed mountains of these books, about both horses and unicorns, until I stumbled across a completely different animal: Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce.

This is not a story about what it’s like to ride a unicorn. This is a story about what it’s like to be one.

From the first page I was catapulted into a world unlike any I’d ever imagined. There are no human characters in this book. The unicorns of the Vale are a people, a culture unto themselves (though notably not the only unicorn culture), and the narration is sprinkled with examples of their religion, their storytelling, their singing. The main character, Jan, is torn between a desperate desire to win the good regard of his father the prince, and to follow his own heart, even when it conflicted with his people’s traditions and teachings. This conflict leads him to question everything he was raised to believe: about his faith, his people’s history, and his destiny.

These unicorns don’t lounge about in meadows waiting for beautiful maidens to happen by. Their story is one of struggle: driven from their homeland by the wyverns, they settled in a Vale across the Great Grass Plain. As Birth of the Firebringer opens, their numbers have grown and they await the coming of the prophesized Firebringer, who will lead an army back to their ancestral lands to reclaim what is theirs.

Pierce layers the narrative with hints that the unicorns’ version of history might not be as true as Jan has been taught to believe. The legends, for example, always describe the Vale as “empty” when the unicorns arrived. Later, Jan will realize that the Vale was a hunting ground for the gryphon clans, and when the unicorns invaded and drove out the native game, the gryphons, as a people, suffered. I still remember the shock of realizing, along with Jan, that the antagonistic gryphons might actually have a legitimate reason for the attacks they launched against the Vale–something beyond a thirst for cruelty.

firebringer1I was thunderstruck. And I wanted to tell stories like that. My play with My Little Ponies changed from saddles and bridles and combing hair into epic quests and wars against dragons, incorporating world-building, history and mythology, involving prophecy and politics and revelations. Unicorns were serious business. I no longer wanted to be a princess mounted on a unicorn. I wanted to see a world through a unicorn’s eyes.

I was an adult before I realized that Birth of the Firebringer was in fact the first in a trilogy. Dark Moon addresses the question of humanity, previously only hinted at in Firebringer — an alien and powerful species that sees the unicorns as fabulous beasts. The Son of Summer Stars brings prophecies to fulfillment in a way no one imagined, and takes Jan from youth into adulthood.

The Firebringer Trilogy is classed as young adult fantasy, but reading the last two books as an adult, I have no reservations about recommending them to other adults. The story remains powerful, and the language beautiful. Pierce chooses words to enhance the conceit that the reader, along with Jan, is listening to a unicorn storyteller’s tale; and yet the tale remains easy-to-follow rather than getting bogged down by its own description.

If you’re ready to leave your humanity behind and take a look at the world from the point of view of a creature who is utterly unlike you – if you are ready to question your leaders, your faith, and your role in the world – if you are prepared to set aside the preconception that unicorns are fluff for little girls – then enter the world of Meredith Ann Pierce’s Firebringer Trilogy.