Today, I’m teaching a workshop for writers at Romancing the Capital on Point of View and Voice. It’s a jam-packed little session, as these are both huge topics, so I’m posting the workshop here as well to be sure no one misses any of it.
Here we go:
When Eve gave me this topic for my workshop today, I did a little double-take. Point of view and voice are two different tools for storytelling, and if used skillfully, they work together to heighten the reader’s experience of the story. The trick is that I could teach about either for at least a half a day—to cover both in an hour means that we’ll just visit the essentials.
We’ll start with point of view. Point of view involves two different structural choices. Most of the references I found explained one or the other, but bonus today, we’ll talk about both.
First is the choice of how to structure the book. How many of you learned French or another language in school? Then you remember conjugating verbs. There are traditionally six forms that you learn in conjugating verbs:
– first person singular—I am, I saw, I went
– second person singular—you are, you saw, you went
– third person singular—he or she is, he or she saw, he or she went
– first person plural—we are, we saw, we went
– second person plural—you (all) are, you (all) saw, you (all) went
– third personal plural—they are, they saw, they went
In French, you might remember the subjects from those conjugation charts as je, tu, il or elle, nous, vous, ils or elles. In English, second person singular and plural are the same (unless you’re from the American south).
Theoretically, you could write a book using any of these points of view. In reality, the most common choices are first person singular and third person singular, which are usually called first person and third person. I’ve only ever encountered one book written in second person—it was a Tom Robbins novel—and the structure was as awkward as you might anticipate.
Many new writers just let the story come, and don’t think too much about structure. I think that POV should be a deliberate choice, so let’s talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each option. We’ll also touch on the variables to consider in both the choice of a POV structure, and the choice of a POV character.
The first person narrative reads like a confession. ‘The first time I saw him, I knew…’ It’s an intimate format, that can create a strong emotional bond between the reader and the writer. First person can be used to advantage in a coming-of-age story, which is why it’s so popular a choice in the young adult genre. I used it in my Dragon Diaries trilogy, which tells about Zoë turning sixteen and coming into her powers as the Wyvern of my dragon shifters, the Pyr. It’s also a popular choice in Gothic romance or mysteries, particularly when the protagonist is emotionally at risk, solving the mystery for personal reasons or becomes a potential victim. I used first person in my historical romance, The Rogue, which is a gothic medieval romance, because I felt that Ysabella’s uncertainties about trusting Merlyn were made more clear that way. I like to use first person for characters who are secretive or disinclined to confide in other people. The second book in that same series, The Scoundrel, features Merlyn’s brother, Gawain. He’s the villain in The Rogue and a whole lot of trouble. I knew that we wouldn’t be able to believe that he was truly in love with Evangeline—and thus be able to trust in their HEA—unless we were in his point of view when he realized the truth. Of course, he thought it was terribly inconvenient, and that scene remains one of my favorites of my own books. I also used first person in my contemporary romance, Double Trouble, specifically because Maralys has both a strong voice and a secret. Writing that story in first person allowed me to hint at her secret before she finally admitted it, much less told James about it. That book is free at most online portals right now.
The downside of first person point of view is that quite often the protagonist is the narrator for the entire book. So we have the upside of the narrowed view of the world, and the downside of a narrowed view of the world. We go through life only being able to hear the thoughts and feel the reactions for one person—our own—but in fiction, particularly in romance, there are readers who want to hear the thoughts and feel the reactions of the other protagonist. You don’t have to change POV to reveal this, though. How many of you have partners? If you suggest something to your partner—and this could be anything. A potential vacation, a new sex position, something different for dinner—how many of you know exactly what your partner is thinking of that suggestion the vast majority of the time? You might even know before your partner says a word. As social animals, we are keenly aware of physical clues which reveal or hint at the thoughts and feelings of other people. There’s no reason why your protagonist can’t notice those same things and make conclusions about the other protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. If done well, the reader will have no doubt of what is really going on, even in the minds and hearts of non-POV characters.
But that said, some authors like to switch out the point of view character. I did that in The Scoundrel—the book is written in first person but divided into quarters, the first section being from Gawain’s POV, the second from Evangeline’s, the third from Gawain’s and the fourth from Evangeline’s. The choice of order is not an accident, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s common when you do this to label each section or chapter with the name of the POV character to orient the reader. The majority of my contemporary romance Third Time Lucky is written in first person from the heroine’s POV, and the scenes from the hero’s POV are in third person. There are very few of them comparatively and they appeared in the original book in a different font. Others use this structure of switching between first and third, too, but I think it’s less elegant.
Third person POV is probably more prevalent overall in the world of fiction—although it might be uncommon in your sub-genre of choice. In a way, it’s more familiar. It also offers the option of including multiple POV’s in a book, beyond even that of the protagonist. In mystery, it’s common to have the occasional scene from the POV of the villain, for example, which is specifically done to build the tension. Third person POV is a more elegant choice for changing POV between scenes, although you should ensure that the first line of each scene orients the reader as to who the POV character is. That will ensure a smooth reading experience. If the reader has to wonder, he of she will be dropped out of the story, which is never a good thing.
The downside of third person is only that it’s less intimate that first person POV. That’s mitigated by the increased flexibility of the structure, which can be used to increase the reader’s connection to both protagonists. Your skill as a writer will make a big difference heere. Sometimes you don’t know what to choose, or you make the wrong choice at the outset. For example, I originally wrote my urban fantasy romance Fallen in first person POV from the heroine’s perspective, because the heroine Lilia had a lot of attitude. I found her prickly and she sounded bitchy in third person, but in first person, I could understand her better and even sympathize with her. Her husband has been murdered, she wants to uncover the truth, even though they’ve been estranged for a long time. Everyone is lying to her, including the cop who seems determined to be obstructionist. The worst part is that she thinks he’s hot, which provokes her reaction to him and her guilt about her failed marriage. When that book was placed with a publisher, the editor suggested some revisions, one of which was that the book be revised to be in third person. I had very mixed feelings about this at the time, but gave it a try. The thing was that the exercise of having written Lilia in first person gave me the insight to write her in third person in a more compelling way. Plus I really liked the added scenes from the hero’s POV. The hero Montgomery had been quite enigmatic in the earlier version. He’s a fallen angel who voluntarily shed his wings as part of a quest to save humanity, and who is now a cop. The series is future-set and apocalyptic. One of the great benefits of revising this book to be in third person POV was the addition of Montgomery’s experience of sacrificing his wings, which is the opening scene of the book. It’s his first taste of pain, and I love that scene. It would never have existed if I’d left the book as it was originally.
Another consideration when you decide what POV to use is the current fashion. There are trends in the structure of stories, just like everything else, and popular fiction shows more of them than literary fiction. Let’s focus for a moment on the change in the romance genre. The kind of story that is most popular may shape the ways in which books are structured. The romances of the forties through the early eighties were mostly about women’s journeys, so they focussed on the heroine. They were written in third person POV from the heroine’s perspective, or in the case of Gothics, in first person POV from the heroine’s perspective. If you go back and look at many of these books, you’ll see that the heroes tend to be shadowy figures. They’re rich, they’re handsome, they’re domineering, and perhaps because they’re taciturn, we don’t get a great deal of insight into their characters. Each is the handsome prince come to sweep the heroine away, the inevitable result of her goodness and innocence. The spine of these stories is Cinderella. Through the eighties, though, romance became more complicated, both in reality and within the genre mirroring popular culture, and heroes became more dimensional. They might be scarred or wounded. The heroine might not be innocent. The core story changed to Beauty and the Beast, which has the distinction of being the oldest fairy tale with an active female protagonist. The heroine and hero began to heal each other, and the books portrayed a much more active negotiation of an enduring relationship. Along with this change came the increasing prevalence in romance novels of the hero’s POV. It’s now pretty common in our genre to have POV alternate, scene by scene through the book, with one scene from the hero’s POV, then one from the heroine’s, then one from the hero, etc.
This isn’t just a mechanical trick, because here’s the complication—POV in any scene should be given to the character who has the most at risk. The character with the most to win or lose “owns” the scene and should be the POV character. We’re not going to talk about writing a synopsis today, because that’s another long workshop, but learning this is one of the merits of writing a synopsis. A successful romance in our current market has two entwined character arcs and two journeys. It should be both the hero and the heroine’s story, and each should propel the other along the path of their journey. There’s a chemistry between them and each reacts to the other’s choices, prompting another choice, and another step closer to the resolution of one of the conflicts. When I teach about writing synopses, I talk about the hot potato. What does he do and what reaction does that provoke in her? What is his reaction to her choice? A synopsis is a useful tool, even though all authors hate writing them, because a good synopsis shows the path of the hot potato, as the pair challenge each other’s assumptions and provoke each other’s reactions. It also marks the turning points—when does each realize it’s love, when does each say it’s love—as well as the connection between realization and reaction.
So, in any given scene, the POV should be assigned to the character with the most at risk. Gawain in The Scoundrel is a whole lot of trouble and he’s determined to have no feelings for anyone at all. He’s a thief and a mercenary. So, the moment he realizes that he’s in love has to be in his POV. That’s the only way we’re going to believe him. I chose to write the book in first person to heighten the connection with the reader in that one scene. That scene had to come before he tells Evangeline about his feelings, so we share her skepticism but know better—we’re kind of on the inside—and it also is punctuated by a change in his choices. It’s not enough to love her and to know it. He has to act upon that knowledge to prove it to us. What he does is return to a keep to rescue her, knowing that at best, only one of them will survive.
And now onto our quick overview of voice.
Voice is a distinctive tone to a work. This is both simple and complicated. Think of the way you recognize the voice or the laughter of a friend—you can often do this on the telephone in a word or two. It’s not just accent or pitch that makes a voice distinct. It can be a typical choice of words, or a characteristic way of describing things. Just as it’s hard to pinpoint the exact combination of elements that let you recognize someone’s voice, it’s difficult to precisely define the elements of a writer’s voice.
But we’ll try anyway.
Here are several typical components of voice, from broadest overview to narrowest scope:
a/ the overall tone of the author’s work. This might vary from work to work, but there will be common elements throughout all of the author’s work. An author’s tone might be whimsical or hard-edged, sarcastic or funny.
b/ the theme(s) that the author favors. Again, there may be variations, but a thorough study will show patterns. I think that “love conquers all” is part of my voice. That theme is part of my work, even when I don’t write romance.
c/ the types of stories that author prefers to tell. To some extent, this is linked with favored themes.
d/ the kinds of characters that author chooses. Does he or she write strong but vulnerable heroines? Scarred heroes? Unlikely heroes? Again, a lot of these components are entangled with each other. The kind of protagonists favored by an author might be tied to tone, theme or genre—or all three.
e/ the specific way the author uses language to express him or herself. This can include whether the prose is lush or spare. Regional expressions can be part of voice. The amount of description, the amount of dialogue, and the balance between the two can be part of voice. Also, the author’s vocabulary, or the choice of common vs. unusual words. Some authors like sentence fragments, some write sentences so long that they defy belief. This is all part of the author’s voice, of what makes his or her work distinctive from everyone else’s work.
If this is all feeling a bit slippery, don’t worry. Those are all vague qualities and I’m going to complicate the formula a bit more. Some authors have strong voices, some don’t. It’s more typical of literary fiction authors to exhibit clear voice. This is simply the realities of their market—literary fiction is in many ways about language and the author’s dexterity with language. It makes sense that voice would play a big role in making a literary fiction author publishable.
In fact, in single title works in all genres—as compared to series titles—authors tend to have more distinctive voices. This is because the publisher wants to be able to build a “brand” in the marketplace. If the author has a strong voice, the theory is that not only is there something to brand, but that readers will continue to buy works by the author because they like the voice. We, as readers, respond to a writer’s voice in the same way that we respond to individuals. How many of you have said “I don’t like her work. It’s too…(whatever)”? And then we assume that our response to the author’s voice will be the same as our response to the author herself.
Another reason that voice may be more clear in some genres than others is that voice appears to be stronger in passages that don’t have a lot of dialogue. This makes sense, when you think about it, because in descriptive passages, the author’s voice isn’t competing with the voices of the characters. You can still discern the author’s voice in dialogue, but it’s tougher and you have to read more of his or her work for the voice to be clear. The characters’ voices will dominate in dialogue, and in a work written in first person POV, the protagonist’s voice might completely overwhelm the author’s voice. Maralys did that to me in Double Trouble. In any given work, there can be a number of competing voices: there will be the author’s voice, the voice of the narrator or pov character, and the voices of the other characters. At any given point in that work, one of those voices may dominate the others, or they may all sing in harmony.
One interesting thing about voice is how it becomes entwined with the author brand. When we as readers say we like this author or that one, we’re often referring to the author’s voice rather than the individual books. The voice is the basis of the connection and its continuity between works builds our loyalty as readers. We respond to the way that author tells stories, and the stories he or she chooses to tell. Given that, it makes sense that the author’s voice becomes mingled with the author’s brand. Voice might even be the author’s brand—count on Author A for this kind of story. The tricky bit is that because voice is difficult to define, individual readers may perceive elements in the author’s voice that others don’t. That will impact the building of the author brand.
Another interesting thing about voice is that it shouldn’t be as distinctive and clear throughout the book. If you think about actors, they don’t summon all their creative energy for the scene in which their character has nothing particular to contribute. They don’t ‘steal the scene’ from the character with the most at risk. They bring the fullness of their skills to scenes that are pivotal for their character, or are turning points. They use their abilities for emphasis. And writers should do this as well. You can use your voice for emphasis.
I have two excerpts to read to you here, and I want you to listen for the change in each one. In both excerpts, the author is using voice as a tool.
The first is an excerpt from an Anne Rice book, Exit to Eden:
“We stopped on the way back for some wine and a load of delicacies — caviar and crackers, apples, sour cream, smoked oysters. I bought some cinnamon and butter and bread, lots of French yogurt, a cold bottle of Dom Perignon (the best they had, $50) and a package of liquor store wine glasses.
When we got to the room, I ordered an ice bucket, turned off the air conditioner again, and latched the shutters the way I had the first time.
It was just getting dusk, vivid, sweet New Orleans dusk with the sky blood red and the pink oleander glowing in the tangle of the garden. The heat lingered in the air the way it never does on the coast. There was a velvety feel to the warmth and the room was full of dusty shadows.”
Did you hear the change? What was happening there? We had a shopping list, a bunch of details that the reader apparently needs to know but that aren’t the main point of the scene. The seduction is what’s important, so once they back to the room, the author’s voice takes over. She’s saying “listen up! here comes the good stuff.”
This one is from an Alice Hoffman book, Practical Magic:
“The aunts don’t bother to answer; they have very little tolerance for dim-witted humor, and they’re not interested in making polite conversation. They stand on the corner near the bus station and whistle for a taxi; as soon as one pulls over, they tell the driver exactly where to go — along the Turnpike for seven miles, past the mall and the shopping centers, past the Chinese restaurant and the deli and the ice cream shop where Antonia has worked this summer. The aunts smell like lavender and sulfur, a disquieting mixture, and maybe that’s the reason the taxi driver holds the door open for them when they arrive at Sally’s house, even though they didn’t bother to tip him. The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have. They believe in earning your worth and doing the job right. And when you come right down to it, that’s what they’re here for.
Sally offered to pick them up at the bus station, but the aunts would have none of that. They can get around just fine on their own. They prefer to come to a place slowly, and that’s what they’re doing now. The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm. A haze hangs over the houses and the chimney tops. The aunts stand in Sally’s driveway, between the Honda and Jimmy’s Oldsmobile, their black suitcases set down beside them. They close their eyes, to get a sense of this place. In the poplar trees, the sparrows watch with interest. The spiders stop spinning their webs. The rain will begin after midnight, on this the aunts agree. It will fall in sheets, like rivers of glass. It will fall until the whole world seems silver and turned upside down. You can feel such things when you have rheumatism, or when you’ve lived as long as the aunts have.”
In the first part of the excerpt, even though it’s not dialogue, the author lets the voice of the aunts dominate. (They really only have one voice, even though there are two of them.) “The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have.” The cadence is more clipped, you can hear an elderly person speaking exactly like this.
Then, as soon as the aunts arrive at Sally’s house, the voice changes. The author’s voice then dominates. “The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm.” It’s slower, more leisurely, more evocative. The rhythm is different though the excerpt is all of a piece.
This is a perfect example of using voice for emphasis. The aunts have been summoned to solve a problem, essentially to resolve the plot. This is the big finish. While they are in transit, the author lets their voice claim the passage. This is a way of getting double work out of the travelling passage—it shows the character of the aunts right before they play a key role. Once they arrive, once the big moment is upon us, their voice is subverted to that of the author. This is a signal from the author to the reader that it’s time to sit up and pay attention. The dominance of the author’s voice emphasizes the passage from that point onward, because what happens is important.
Here’s a third excerpt to consider. This is Gawain’s moment of truth in my book The Scoundrel. There’s a religious relic in this book which is called the Titulus Croce, the sign of the cross. It’s believed to be a piece of the sign that was hung over Jesus when he was crucified which said Jesus, King of the Jews, and the hero and heroine steal it from each other repeatedly, each believing that they have the better claim.
“I awakened alone and devoid of the Titulus, yet again.
All that lingered of Evangeline was her sweet scent upon my chemise, the indent of her figure in the straw. I peered over the lip of the loft, not truly surprised to find my horse gone, as well.
Had I not warned her away from me? Had I not ensured that she was disgusted with my vulgarity? I know the look of a woman whose heart is softening to the point that she believes me capable of some misguided nobility—though I had never expected pragmatic Evangeline to regard me thus, she had done so after I pulled her from the lake. It was remarkable, for I could have spent a pleasant night betwixt the lady’s thighs, but had denied my own pleasure to protect her heart.
Chivalry, which I had long believed to be dead and gone from this world unlamented, had proven to be hidden in the most unlikely of places—it had been nestled in my very marrow, and had revealed itself at a most inconvenient time.
I saw now why I had always avoided noble deeds: this past night, I had slept alone, awakened alone, been relieved of my valuables, and all because of my own misguided urge to warn the lady away from me. Gallantry, in my opinion this morn, was of less merit than most men believed.
I had long suspected that scruples were troublesome and thus had always ensured that I not cultivate any. It was no consolation to find my suspicions correct.”
This is edited a bit but here’s the interesting thing—of all the excerpts, this was the easiest one for me to read aloud. Why? Because I wrote it. Passages in your voice will be easier for you to read out loud. You will instinctively know the rhythm of the work, and where the pauses are. Whenever you are uncertain about a passage and the strength of your voice in it, just read it aloud.
There’s a second thing to note about this passage—my voice is used here for emphasis, just as voice was used in the Anne Rice and Alice Hoffman excerpts. This scene is the strongest expression of my voice in this book. It’s also the lynchpin of the plot—this is the scene in which Gawain stops being a scoundrel and becomes a hero. If this short scene were taken out, the book would fall apart. It wouldn’t be a romance. And so because that scene is so very critical, it shows the strongest expression of my voice. Use your voice to emphasize the most important elements of your plot.