Narrative Voice: How to Make Voice do the Heavy Lifting

 
By: 
J. M. Frey
September 23, 2021

At this point you should have your story's mold and sand to fill it. Now you are ready to create your narrative lens, and the way you shape it provides more than just a point of view.  You can use voice to convey many things in a story. For example, it's an especially good way to impart vital information, helping you avoid the dreaded infodump. 

Character Background 

Based on the words, idioms, metaphors your characters use, their voice can communicate information about class, culture, background and education. For example, a person from a maritime background may rely heavily on oceanic idioms and terms. But make sure you do your homework, and be aware that certain cultural terms and phrases may be racist, classist, or may convey a different meaning to a different audience than you assumed. Co-opting a voice based on a culture that you don’t have lived experience in can be tricky, and if you wish to include such language, make sure you use a sensitivity reader. 

Second Languages  

Another way to fill out a character’s background is to work multiple languages into the text, when appropriate. If your characters speak more than one language, you can use the sentence construction and vocabulary of their second language to convey information about their home life, their fluency, and their education. Make sure to take the time speak to actual multilingual people to learn how they actually speak and conflate their languages, if they do at all.  

For example: When I speak English, I don’t mix it up with my second or third languages (French and Japanese) at all. English is my native language, and I always get the grammar/sentence structure right; however, if there is a word that conveys a specific sentiment in French or Japanese that has no equivalent in English, I may deploy it. But because I learned French next, and then Japanese, I sometimes muddle them up, and speak Japanese with French sentence structure, or conjugate Japanese words as -er verbs. This is because my brain has one folder for English, and a shared folder for Not English that is not as rigorously subdivided by practice as I’d like. 

Where possible, avoid indecipherable written accents—it’s usually better to mention that a character has an accent in the narration and let the dialogue stand, instead of trying to spell it out.  It’s much easier to understand “I cannae do it, Captain,” he said in his thick Scots brogue, than “Ach cannae do’t cap’n,” he said, if you have a mainstream audience. If you're writing primarily for Scottish readers, however, the heavier brogue construction may work fine. Write for readability, whatever that looks like for your readership. 

Worldbuilding 

Can we have French Fries, French Braids, and French Kisses in a world with no France? If your world has no France, what do they call these things instead? And what is the linguistic origins of those terms? What other idioms, verbs, or metaphors might your characters deploy if they live in a secondary world with different every-day experiences, joys, and worries? What sayings or old-wives tales would they use based on the level of technology of your secondary world, or whether there’s magical creatures.

In Summary: 

Figure out what kinds of words, idioms, and vocabulary will shape the lens through which your readers experience your story, and use both the character’s voices and the narrative voice as a way to convey information about the character and world to the reader subtly. You can infer rather than infodump.

Activity

1. Think about a novel you read where characters have different backgrounds from each other. What kinds of language do each of the characters use? What do their words and phrases tell you about their backgrounds, their education, or their origins? Find a copy of the book and write down some of the differences. 

2. How does the narration make you feel about the world depicted in the story? Is it funny? Scary? Beautiful? See if you can identify which words and phrases the author uses that contribute to that feeling. Are the descriptions exaggerated for comic effect? Are there words that make you feel scared or uncomfortable? Does the author use phrases that relate to a specific time period, culture or interpretation of people and places?

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Narrative Voice: How to Make Voice do the Heavy Lifting is the ninth post in an 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)

Part 8: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part Two)