The Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing Part III

Sin # 3: Missing the Mark on Voice & POV

Voice is one of the most elusive aspects of writing. If you struggle with it, you are not alone. Just understanding what it is can be a challenge. When a writer speaks of voice, do they mean the way a character talks, the way the MC comes across to the reader or something deeper, something that infuses the story from beginning to end?

To me Voice can be summed up in a single word: authenticity. Voice is when the writer blends their unique writing style with their intimate character knowledge and viewpoint to elevate story telling into an actual, moving experience for the reader. Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.

A strong voice is the writer's devotion coming through. Their portrayal of the POV character entrances the reader--every word, every description, every thought and action of the MC rings true. Real. Authentic.

The focal point of Voice centers on the POV character. This authenticity and realism transforms the main character into someone the reader believes in, cares about and roots for. A connection is forged that cannot be broken because to the reader, the character and his plight feels real.

Missing the mark with Voice creates a 'watered down' effect where the MC's essence isn't captured as completely. A weak voice is dangerous, because the reader will not be emotionally invested as they read...if they even choose to read on. Several things can contribute to a weak voice.

The writer doesn't know the character well enough

This is the difference between asking, "What would someone do in this situation?" and "What would my main character do in this situation?" The MC is not just anyone--they are unique. Their footprint alone must be placed in every action and decision. If the writer doesn't know the character well enough, the reader will not believe in the character's choices and actions, or be bored by the MC's 'generic' feel and predictability. KNOW YOUR CHARACTER AS WELL AS YOU KNOW YOURSELF.

The writer has doubts about their ability to tell the story

As writers, doubt can be difficult to banish. We tend to analyze our skills and abilities constantly. After all, this is a business where being told, 'Sorry, this isn't what we want' happens all to frequently. Rejection often leads to self doubt and reevaluation. It's the nature of what we do.

However, doubt must never enter the picture when writing a novel. Pushing away negatives may be hard, but it must be done to achieve the authority needed to bring that compelling voice into play. The core belief that this story is ours because we know the characters inside and out is imperative for a successful voice. We then prove it by writing a story that comes alive for the reader. If the writer doesn't believe, the voice will suffer as a result.

The writer is not 'all in'


Writing is all about pushing the envelope. How far can we push our characters, how far can we push the reader? There is a fine line between completely captivating the reader and forcing disbelief by going too far. We cannot be afraid to walk this line. If the writer holds back, the voice is dulled by hesitation.

Making choices based on how a novel might be received, pulling punches to soften a scene or 'save' the character, pushing the writer's agenda to preach (yes, sin #2)--all of these sabotage the story and weaken the voice. Don't be too risk-adverse. Commit and give it everything you've got.

Poorly chosen POV

POV is closely tied to the Writer's Authenticity. After all, the POV chosen will have a huge impact on how the story is received by readers. Done right, it proves that the writer has nailed the story telling. The wrong POV changes the focus and delivery, and not for the better. POV hurdles often come in three forms:

-The POV chosen does not do the story justice

Sometimes the choice of POV for the story doesn't paint the picture as well as it should. Each POV will change the perspective being offered, so choosing the right one for the story is important. First Person puts the reader right into the character's head, but they are limited to personal knowledge only. Omniscient POV tells us everything, but requires a deft hand to wield or character transitions end up as drunken head-hopping. Third Person can sometimes create a good in-between, but is that enough? Bottom line--consider all aspects of the story and decide which POV (and which character) can deliver the most gripping account.

--POV is shared between characters because the writer can't decide who's story it is

Sometimes the writer falls in love with their characters to the point where they cannot bear to leave anyone's story untold. The result is often muddled plot lines and the reader feeling unsure about who to care about most. *Note, this is different from intentional POV sharing in order to provide a cohesive tale of multiple characters.*

If the writer doesn't know who's story it is, how will the reader? Frustration will ensue and the writer will be lucky to retain the reader's interest. TAKE THE TIME TO KNOW THE STORY. If the story line is nailed down, deciding who's POV to concentrate on is easy, because one character and one plot line naturally stands out as the strongest. Be ruthless to the other characters. Not everyone can sit in the driver's seat.

--The writer is inexperienced in the chosen POV

Some POVs are harder to master than others. Omni or First person are often viewed as the most difficult to get right and unfortunately inexperience shows. Sometime a writer is better of sticking to what they know. But what if they feel the story's power will be diluted if told through any other POV?

In that case, Practice, practice, practice. Read widely in the POV, and find good critique partners. Other writers who can offer honesty and mentorship will help the writer learn the POV inside and out! Time and energy put into developing our craft always pays off.

What are your thoughts on the importance of POV & Voice? Can you think of other ways where improper handling causes power to be leeched from the story and lead character?

Photo courtesy of theparadigmshifter

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26 comments:

Deb Salisbury said...

This is one of the best definitions of voice I've read. Thanks!

Christina Farley said...

What a great post! You really delved into areas about POV that I hadn't thought about. And I think you really hit the nail about being in the character's head, really knowing that character. I loved how you explained voice as the song. Thank you!

Karen said...

Great post!

Yunaleska said...

Voice definitely plays a role.

POV - oh boy I've just faced this recently.I'm not good at male voices. And, having the extra voice would have weakened my story an awful lot. It weakened it in the previous draft, so it is not coming back.

James Cornelius said...

More golden writing advice. Marvellous stuff.

Iapetus999 said...

Hard to know what to do with POV sometimes. One thing to consider is that the POV of the scene should be from the character experiencing the most conflict in the scene. An outside view describing a scene is not as effective as a character embroiled in a physical or emotional struggle.

Vijaya said...

Great post. Every time I get "stuck" it's because I don't know my character well enough, and thus do not know her voice.

Happy New Year, Angela. May this year bring you all you hope and dream of.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Thanks for the in-depth look at Voice and POV. I can usually avoid the head-hopping issue, but have problems feeling sorry for my main character.

Instead of writing as writers, perhaps we need to write as readers. What makes the reading experience satisfying for us?

Blessings,
Susan :)

à la vanille said...

Thanks, didn't know that POV was so important, gives me something to reconsider in my story.

nanmarino said...

Enjoyed your post. Lots of great info here. The line about voice being the song of the story and the heartbeat of the main character is beautiful.

Larissa said...

Excellent post!

Danyelle said...

Brilliant post! I like your comment that voice = authenticity. I agree with you absolutely. I think there's another part to voice. In talking about the writer's voice, to me this means authenticity AND the author's signature--being able to identify their writing because that signature (voice) is there.

POV is amazingly complex. When I first started writing, I didn't realize how complex. For me, it's the story that calls the shots. One series requires, for some reason, 4 POVs to tell the whole story. Others only require one.

*grin* I loved the bit about drunken head hopping. Amen, sister! :p

Erica said...

Great post. You nailed voice right on. I'm thankful that my voice was always there. It hurts me to see some writers ask where their voice is. It's you, authenticity, just brilliant...

Great job!

Robyn Campbell said...

Fantastic post Angela. Pushing our characters to the limit and beyond. Yep!

I love your definition of voice. When I read that I said, "that's it. She's got it!" It has always been hard for me to define. Thank you, thank you.

I doubt every day,but I work through them. I want this. So I write, pushing the doubts out of my head through my ear and I dump them in the trash can. *fist pump*

Thanks for such a thoughtful post. We appreciate you!

Bish Denham said...

WOW! Great post, one I can read more than once and learn something from each time. Thanks.

Angela said...

Deb, thank you! This post took me an afternoon to get up, simply because Voice is so hard to define.

Christina, glad this helps!

Karen, thanks for stopping in--glad the post helps!

Yuna, I agree, sometimes having an extra POV can weaken the story. It's a difficult choice when working with multiple POVs, because the writer has to really justify the presence of a secondary POV character. Sometimes it is justified, sometimes not.

James, thanks for your comment. I'm so glad this helps you.

Lapetus, I agree with this all the way. For POV to be most effective, the stakes need to be high. And what can be higher than to be directly involved and impacted by the events as they unfold? Well put!

Vijaya, Voice is a tough one. I think most writers who don't start off with it naturally would say it is the hardent writing element to master. That's why the post was so long....to talk about the things that interfere with voice, I needed to talk about what it was first. Thanks for the New Years wishes! I hope good things come to all of us!

Susan, I'm glad you mentioned this--I was thinking a lot of how writers read VS readers as I wrote the post. I definitely think we need to make sure we put both hats on during the process, because we do look at it differently. Writers can be much more critical of technique, and sometimes the creative flow can suffer. At the end of the day, it's important that the reader is fufilled and satified, so we must always be aware of their needs and how the work will be viewed by a non writer.

a la vanille, I think I could have done a whole post on POV. There are so many things to consider, I often wonder if writers would make good jugglers!

Nanmario, thanks so much for visiting and your comment. I'm glad that line reached out to you!

Larissa, thanks!

Danyelle, I couldn't agree more. I think this is where voice and style meet to create a unique blueprint of the writer.

Erica, I'm glad you found your voice right away. I think mine was always there too, but it took me a while to trust it and believe in it. Doubt can really screw with our heads! *sics zombies on all doubt*

Robyn, Doubt is evil, isn't it? I like the idea of you slam dunking it in the trash can, because that's where it belongs! Thanks for the kind words!

Bish, thank you. I know the post is a bit packed, but hopefully worth reading.

Happy new year everyone! I hope this year is the best one yet!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE this blog?!

I swear, Angela, every time I read your blog entries I wish I had a photographic memory. I want to memorize every word for future use! :-)

PJ Hoover said...

Awesome post, Angela! I love reading various voices and thinking about them, especially when I recognize something as a strong voice and don't like it.
And POV - Oy. I'm working on dual POV right now, and it is a stretch exercise for me (which is good!).

Anne Gilbert said...

Thanks very much for this post. I've been struggling with the same issues. In my present book, I've got several POV's, but they're all main characters, and their stories kind of intertwine. I also have part of a novel I set aside, that I did in first person, and I know that wasn't quite right, or at least the way I did it wasn't quite right, so I'm wavering between starting it in a different place than I started it, or making it third person, so I can have mainly the main character's POV, but also the POV's of some others.
Anne G

Harvey Chapman said...

Great post, Angela...

I totally agree with what you said about newbie novel writers not being practised enough with their chosen POV.

I see a lot of manuscripts from beginners and, while they are passionate about their writing, they clearly don't understand the theory and logic of either first or third person - particularly the important difference between the viewpoint character's voice and the author's/narrator's voice.

And getting that wrong, of course, can be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

ElanaJ said...

I agree with your voice points 1000%. They are spot on. We all have a voice we talk with, write with. So does your MC. It's your job as a writer to find it and convey it with words.

Lisa and Laura said...

So, so true. Voice is essential to a book. We absolutely love playing around with it. Thanks for the fabulous post.

Creative A said...

"A strong voice is the writer's devotion coming through. Their portrayal of the POV character entrances the reader--every word, every description, every thought and action of the MC rings true."

I thought that was especially good, and nails down exactly how I think of voice. It's the sound of the novel, which is more than the way we wrote it. It's the way we've portrayed what we've written, based on the people we're writing about. Although you said it more succinctly than I did :)

-Mandy

jessjordan said...

Great post! I had to stop writing the other day and say, "Okay, this is what *I* would do in x situation, but no one cares about me--what would my MC do?" It's definitely important that we get out of our own heads and let our characters grow and learn and make their own mistakes. That said ... it's still very difficult to do, at least imo.

Thanks so much for this!

Joseph Katz said...

Sometime a writer is better of sticking to what they know.

*Sometimes, off*

Janet Johnson said...

Thank you for defining Voice! EVERYONE talks about it, but few can explain what it is in a helpful way. Great advice!

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