Let the Characters Tell the Story

Voice is one of those things that agents, editors, and readers want us to get right, but it's so hard to nail, particularly when you're writing in third person. I read books like The Raven Boys (Stiefvater) and Shadow and Bone (Bardugo) and I'm blown away by the crystal clear voice; I can see that the voice can be strong in a third person novel, though I'm not sure exactly how to achieve it myself. That's why I'm loving today's post by Jodie Renner. She just been accepted as part of the team at The Kill Zone blog, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to share spot-on, practical tips for creating a strong third-person voice. 
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I attend a lot of writing conferences and read scores of craft-of-fiction books, and the topic of creating an appealing “voice” always comes up. Agents and aspiring editors are always looking for “a fresh voice,” and aspiring (and even published) authors want to know how to develop an authentic, compelling voice that readers will love. To me, the best way is to let the characters tell the story. Stay out of the story as the author, and forget omniscient point of view.

Some examples of strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.

These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view — especially with such fascinating characters! But we can create an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep not only the dialogue, but all of the narration (observations and explanations) for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, colored by their background, personality, attitudes, and mood. Also, try to have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view, as it’s their story.

TO CREATE A STRONG THIRD-PERSON VOICE:

Start with a character readers will identify with and root for. Your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some vulnerability and inner conflict. Then be sure to show his world and the events unfolding around him through his eyes and ears, not the author’s, or that of an omniscient narrator.

Write the narration from the character’s point of view, too. Stay in your character’s POV for the observations, descriptions, and explanations, too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, neutral, authorial point of view — show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before:
Suzie peered around the tree again to watch. The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.

After:
Suzie peered around the tree again to watch. The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Don’t intrude as the author to explain things to the readers. Even explanations of points should be presented through the characters, perhaps in a dialogue with disagreement and attitude. Be on the lookout for where you step in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world — and out of the fictive dream.

TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE POV CHARACTER’S VOICE:

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.

Use stream-of-consciousness journaling. To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this wording to show his personality more in the scenes.

Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it backWrite a whole scene, or even a chapter or two, in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.

Write with attitude! To bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice and wording, with lots of attitude!

Fiction writers and readers: what are your thoughts on this? Do you have any more tips for developing an authentic, appealing voice? Leave a comment to enter a draw for a free e-copy of Jodie’s prize-winning craft-of-writing book Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction 

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (a Silver Medal winner in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Related articles:
Show Your Setting through Your POV Character
Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy
Concrete Tips for Developing an Appealing Voice in Your Fiction

38 comments:

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks, Becca and Angela, for having me back again as a guest on your highly rated blog! It's always an honor to be here!

Writer readers, aspiring writers, and friends, do leave a comment to enter the draw for a free e-copy of my prize-winning book, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

To enter the draw, put "Sizzles" at then end of your comment. That way we won't choose someone who already has the book.

Thanks, and good luck!

Kessie said...

Great article! I've read a lot of MG that has great voice, and it's third person. The Magic Thief comes to mind, which swaps between first and third, I think. Sizzle!

C.R. Evers said...

Awesome interview! A lot of good stuff that I can put into practice. Thanks!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Kessie - Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to check out The Magic Thief.

C.R. - I'm glad you found these suggestions helpful!

Southpaw said...

Nice tips and I loved the example.

Johnell DeWitt said...

Great tips. I need to reread some of those books and break down what I love about them. Hopefully I can learn what I need to make my characters stand out.

Erica said...

Loved this article! The advice that really struck me was to make sure I don't jump in to drop a bunch of exposition (like my old teacher lecturing us in a monotone and tapping his fingertips together-the horror!).

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your comments, Southpaw, Johnell, and Erica. Glad you find my tips helpful!

Be sure to let me know if you'd like your name put in the draw for a free e-book, by adding "Sizzles" at the end. Good luck!

Angela Ackerman said...

Great advice here, Jodie! I'm with Becca--i think Voice is the single hardest thing to nail if it doesn't come "naturally" and I think for most of us, it doesn't.

This will be hugely helpful to all writers! Thanks for visiting us today :)

Angela

Jodie Renner Editing said...

My pleasure, Angela! Thanks for hosting me again! :)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

I'd also add another tip: Get into the character's head and role-play, reading their dialogue, thoughts and observations out loud to make sure it all sounds authentic to their personality, age, background, mood, etc.

Tennessee Love said...

Jodi, thanks so much for the advice to write in first person then switch back or translate it to third. That is an excellent, pragmatic exercise. I prefer third person and this technique has two benefits: it can help someone like me who often feels married to a particular POV try out a new one that may work better and it also helps develop voice and a sense of immediacy. Cool.

Tennessee Love said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jodie Renner Editing said...

Great! Glad to be of assistance, Tennessee! Good luck with your WIP!

Tennessee Love said...

Thanks, Jodi. I meant to add "Sizzles" at the end of my comment. You post is so helpful. Good Luck to you as well. April Bradley

Jodie Renner Editing said...

I'll add your name to the draw, April. :)

Becca Puglisi said...

I really like post. Voice is seriously so hard to get right. These tips are really helpful. Thanks again, Jodie!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks, Becca! Great to be a guest on your awesome blog again!

Beth said...

Great comments on author intrusion - what I'm struggling with right now. Thanks for this post!

Susanne Drazic said...

Wow, lots of great advice. Thanks, Jodie!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks, Beth and Susanne! I'm glad you find my advice helpful.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! Voice is SO key in whether or not we get attached to a book. :)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

So true, Jemi! As a reader, I couldn't agree more! And as a fiction editor, I try to convince my clients of this.

Pk Hrezo said...

Voice is something that takes time to nail down. For my last story, I really thought about what kind of person intrigues me. I used that to build a voice around for my first person narration, and I had so much fun with it, it became the strongest part of the story.
Great tips, Jodie! Thanks!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

What an excellent idea! Thanks for sharing, PK! :)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Congratulations to April Bradley (Tennessee Love), who won the draw for an e-copy of my award-winning book, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. I don't have your email address, so to claim your prize, please contact me at j.renner.editing(at)Hotmail, by Sunday night. If I don't hear from you by then, I'll draw another name. Thanks.

Marissa Graff said...

Great post! I recently got a rejection that highlighted a lack of voice and it's overwhelming to think of how to fix that--even when you can see the problem yourself. I love your idea of getting out of the character's way.

Beyond intrusion to explain things, there's the temptation for an author to do the actual, direct talking. Sometimes a strong third-person voice can be TOO distracting. I just finished a novel where the narrator was fantastic, but I kept *seeing* the author behind her curtain, so to speak. Her clever word choices, images, and metaphors were distracting to me. It began to come off as contrived and showy (for me). Additionally, as you show in your examples, word choices by an author often don't reflect a child's perspective, which also yank us from the "fictional dream." If we're authentically following the journey of a child, we have to honor their worldview. So much to think about. It's no wonder voice is really difficult. Thanks for your insights. A truly great post!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your excellent comments, Marissa. An author intruding like that, trying to be clever, isn't a strong third-person "voice" to me. A strong voice is the character telling their story, with lots of personality and attitudes and quirks, not the author being clever.

I love how you expressed this: "...word choices by an author often don't reflect a child's perspective, which also yank us from the 'fictional dream.' If we're authentically following the journey of a child, we have to honor their worldview." So true!

Thanks again, Marissa!

Sarah Chafin said...

My characters have really been missing something and this article was timely and so helpful. Thank you! Sizzles :)

Brian J said...

Hey Jodie,

Awesome post!

I can relate to your points about journaling and writing with attitude. When working on larger projects I regularly keep journals from the POV of multiple characters.

It helps me flesh out their voice and personality in the story, and possibly discover a new MC, or a subplot I hadn’t considered.

As for writing with attitude, I combine that with becoming the character.

I’ll listen to their favorite genre of music while I write, spend a few minutes before I start writing thinking like them, and view my life through their eyes.

I haven’t started dressing up like them…yet. ;)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Sarah - Good to hear! Glad I could help.

Brian J, you have some excellent ideas there! I love all of them! And I'm sure they're all effective in helping you "become" the characters and let them tell the story!

Rosi said...

This is a great post. I just printed it out and will hang it by my computer. Thanks!

lindseypogue said...

This is an AMAZING post. As a budding author I struggle with this all the time, especially now that I'm trying out the 3rd person POV. I can't tell you how helpful this post was and I'll definitely be following Jodie more closely and checking out her books as I begin to navigate the 3rd person POV. Thank you so much!

Becca Puglisi said...

And the winner of the STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER is April Bradley, aka Tennessee Love! April, if you can email me at becca.puglisi@yahoo.com, I'll forward your message to Jodie so she can get you your ecopy. Congrats!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks, Rosi and Lindsey for your kind words!

I'll be getting into all this with a lot more detail and concrete examples in my upcoming book, Immerse the Readers in Your Story World. Good to hear I'll have some readers! LOL

Thanks, Becca, for helping locate our winner!

Linda A. said...

Jodie,
Thanks for the reminder to show the narrative descriptions from the POV character and his/her feelings at the time.

I recently wrote a blog post about adding what matters to characters in Character Charts.

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