Narrative Voice: Creating a Narrative Voice

 
By: 
J. M. Frey
January 15, 2021

Once you’ve chosen your narrator, your next job is to figure out how they speak. Have a good long think about how their upbringing, social class, race, gender, sexuality, education, job, family home life, nation, etc. interconnect and serve to shape their morals, choices, preferences, and understanding of the world.

And once you’ve got that down, think about how all of those defining elements can be reflected in their word choices, speech patterns, jokes, idioms, cuss words, metaphors, sentence construction, verbal shortcuts, dropped syllables, implied meanings, etc.

People use local slang, idioms, shortcut words and so forth, even in their own heads. Being particular and meticulous about this will give your narrator a solid and unique voice, one that will (ironically, for all that you’re engineering it so closely) feel more authentic and natural to your readers.

Think of ways to convey all of that information relating to the narrator’s background and backstory through their word choices and sentence construction. You don’t have to say “this character grew up by the sea” if all of their metaphors and slang words are maritime.

Creating Distinct Voices

If you decide to tell the story from the POV of more than one narrator, having a distinct voice for each narrator will not only help the reader keep track of whose head they’re in, it will also help you as a writer remember who knows what.

For example, in my Accidental Turn series, there are two narrators. Forsyth Turn, a prissy and extremely proper, well-educated nobleman, and Bevel Dom, the rough-and-tumble son of a blacksmith in a raggedy town, raised with no formal education but the folk wisdom of his mother.

Forsyth rarely uses a one-syllable world when a three-syllable word is available, calls things by their precise and proper nouns, is extremely polite, and never ends a phrase with a dangling participle, even in his own head. Bevel narrates in half-sentences, crude language, uses metaphors that align with his agrarian and smithy background, and non-verbal hand signals that are easy to read across a forge or a field.

While they are both characters involved in telling the story of the series, neither would describe the exact same situation the same way, with the same words, and with the same emotional or physical reaction to the action based on who they are, and who they were raised to be, as people.

As an example -

Forsyth: The serving woman hoisted the whole platter of still-steaming pork over her head, which put her womanly assists, ah, rather prominently on display, to my discomfort. I certainly hoped she wasn’t expecting to have to handle any further servicing to our table.

Bevel: The wench hefted the roast pig up and waded through the crowd, tits jiggling beautifully as she came toward our table. Aw, yes, this was going to be a great meal. And betchya my best hammer the pork would be juicy, too.

When creating distinct narrators, figure out how to make their voices as unique as they are.

In summary

Not every person in the world speaks exactly the same way. Their speech patterns, imagery, and word choices reflect the intersection of their cultural upbringing and their community of peers. You can use this as a clever, subtle tool to convey information about your protagonist and their world to the reader without having to info-dump.

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Narrative Voice: Creating a Narrative Voice is the third post in a nine part series

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator

Part 5: Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

Part 6: Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

Part 7: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)