Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Finding A Voice - Narrator Characterisation

A distinctive voice is the thing that most editors say they are looking for when they read through their submissions pile. But what does this mean exactly? Well, there are many different ways to achieve a distinctive voice. One of the simplest is the device of narrator characterisation.

By this, I mean making the reader feel as if he or she is listening to someone telling a story, as opposed to creating the illusion that the reader is looking through clear glass window at a story unfolding all by itself

As the name suggests, this is achieved by creating a character for the narrator and it is most easily done when employing a first person narrative; but it’s also perfectly possible with a third person narrative.

The most important thing to think about is attitude. When I’m teaching a class on voice I sometimes employ a fairly simple exercise to show how you can inject attitude into narration. It goes like this.

I ask one of the class members to repeat some fairly bland phrase, something like, ‘I have been sitting at this table for half an hour,’ in a neutral voice, then in the voice of someone who is astonished at his discovery, and lastly in the voice of someone who is bored and angry. It’s not a very difficult exercise and most people can pull it off convincingly and often amusingly.

Afterwards, I ask them how they did it. They are sometimes a little non-plussed by the question because it’s generally an instinctive thing; but after some reflection they usually answer that they simply tried to feel the emotions I described. In other words, they acted the part.

This is exactly the same device that you use to inject characterisation into your narrator’s voice: as you write, you act the part. Now I’m not pretending that this is some incredible insight. It’s basic stuff. But even if seems totally obvious to you, it’s still worth thinking about again.

At the moment I’m reading books by two Australian authors: Steve Toltz’s A Fraction Of The Whole and Paul Temple’s The Broken Shore. These books could not be further apart in terms of voice. Reading Steve Toltz feels like you’re trapped in a lift with a stand-up comedian; reading Paul Temple feels like you’re trying to extract a confession of guilt from a laconic depressive. They are both utterly distinctive and memorable and in each case the first thing that I noticed when I began reading was the voice.

At this particular time the world of publishing is retrenching. Quiet books are not even being considered. Editors are looking for manuscripts that have attack, that make an impact, that stick in their memories. One way to achieve this is through a really powerful narrative voice.

1 comment:

Paul Lamb said...

I've found that giving my third-person narrator a characterization (if only in my head) and hearing his or her voice help me maintain narrative consistency. The same story -- the very same words -- will sound very different if narrated by Sean Connery and then Ricky Gervais.