Sunday, October 2, 2011

POV and Narrative Voice

The summer when I was fifteen, I was obsessed with Robert Ludlum. I never read the Bourne novels, oddly enough. It was his earlier novels, purchased for a quarter a piece at a thrift store that caught me. Having devoured three of his books in as many weeks, I went to an actual book store to buy a fourth. I can’t remember the name of it now, but I flipped it open with eager anticipation. Using my “give a novel 100 pages before you give up on it” rule, I plodded through the messy opening acts. Not only was it a bad book, but I was convinced within twenty pages that it wasn’t Robert Ludlum at all. Once my required pages were up, I did a quick internet search and found that it was, in fact, not Robert Ludlum but a ghost writer.

Authors like Ludlum, Stephen King, and (to cite an entirely different genre) Debbie MacComber have recognizable narrative voices. The same thing happened to me recently with King, and I think it was five pages before I realized that I was not reading his work. To me, that’s impressive, not because I’m a great reader, but because these writers have such a strong platform/market/brand/narration, whatever you want to call it, that a reader can tell almost instantly when it is not them.

So, how does an aspiring writer, sitting in her bedroom wearing pajamas after work hope to accomplish the same thing? Narration is a tricky business. Gone are the days when heavy-handed treatment of prose was in vogue. Writers these days don’t have the luxury of the witty and introspective asides that made Austen, Dickens, and Twain the oft-quote authors they are now. Instead, we are there without being noticeable. We wear black to the party instead of scarlet. However, we are still at the party. In fact, we are the host.

I think a great deal of this demands a reliance on instinct. We think and speak in our own way and that rolls over to our writing. However, once we have a “style” we must begin to put in an effort to control and maintain it. In my first novel, which was written in third person omniscient, I had a couple of long passages of beautiful, descriptive prose which had to be cut because it just didn’t work with the rest of the narrative. Likewise, in my more recent novel, I sometimes became too authoritative when the novel was written from the perspective of a meek, insecure heroine. I’ve just started my third book and I’m having a deal of a time tempering my own voice with that of the first person POV of the hero. It will work out, I’m convinced, but it’s difficult right now.

As an interesting aside, most of the people who didn’t know me and edited my first book, a medieval action/adventure, were convinced I was a man. They were shocked to find an eighteen year old girl behind the prose. Why I apparently write like a man is anybody’s guess, but nobody complained, so I don’t worry about it.

As a writer, how have you found your voice? Or, if you write in first person, how do you balance that with your voice?   


  1. Hi Olene, thanks for stopping by my blog today!

    I had no idea the Bourne books were ghost-written. I guess it goes to show that having a voice your readers love is as important as good characterisation and pacing!

  2. @Paul Anthony Shortt

    Thanks for stopping by, Paul. I should clarify, it wasn't the Bourne books that were ghost written, it was another one. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title.