Finding Their Voice

A first-person/subjective narrator needs their own voice. The easiest way to approach this can be to think about it the same way you would think about a character’s speech because that is essentially what they’re doing. Either they are speaking to the reader, or another character as we’ve discussed, or they’re writing it down. Whichever one they’re doing it’s unlikely they’re going to write it all in perfect standardised language; there’ll be colloquialisms, adages, and things only they say. We have to consider what they say, how they say it and who they are.

We don’t have to know all these things when we begin. A first draft is the place to work out the voice and experiment to see what sounds like them and what doesn’t, what they would say and what they wouldn’t. However, by the time we have finished the story and edited it the narrator needs to be a fully rounded character or the cracks will show because we’re in their head all the time it can be conspicuous when they do out of character things for no apparent reason. In an omniscient narrative it can be slightly easier to mask an out of character action because we’re separate from the character so the way we interpret their actions is slightly different. If we’re not always in the character’s head we might draw together different threads to explain their behaviour but in a first-person narration we see more, not necessarily all, of their thoughts. For example, in an omniscient narration we may think a character has hidden feelings for another but in a first-person narration even unspoken feelings are often evident based on how they think about another character.

This is another issue with the subjective narrator. Everything is subjective and people have opinions on everything. These opinions aren’t simply voiced as ‘I thought this’ or ‘I thought that’ but how they think. The obvious example would be the cliché of the attractive lover but from a subjective stance their lover would be attractive to the narrator because they’re the narrator’s lover because the narrator is attracted to them. Granted, there are circumstances where their lover might not be someone they’re attracted to but usually it is. Whether the attraction is a physical one or their personality, a physical love or a plutonic one, they will describe that character differently to the way another character would. A narrator’s lover might not be classically good-looking but to the narrator they might always be the best looking person in the room, alternatively the narrator may be aware of something about their lover others would consider a flaw but they like it and describe it in a positive sense.

This extends to things other than people everything from what they smell, to what they touch. One character might like the smell of daffodils, another may hate it. One might like the texture of cotton and another not. The taste of ginger biscuits or not. So on and so forth across everything they encounter. They don’t always have to tell us they dislike it, they can show us through their behaviour, even if it’s as simple as wrinkling their nose at the sight of a biscuit, or another character commenting on their reaction, or them refusing a biscuit when it’s offered.

All of their views and experience play into their voice, not simply the words that they use. As I said this doesn’t have to be perfect in the first draft because we’re finding out about them, but we need to consider these aspects of their character to create a fully rounded narration.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narration/narrative see Finding Your Voice. You may also find my internal monologue series useful under Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: