Friday, July 3, 2020

How to Create an Engaging Third-Person Voice in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

If you want to write fiction that engages readers and sells, it's critical to develop an authentic, compelling voice in your novel. The key to accomplishing this is to recognize that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and reactions of your main character (or other important character -- villain, love interest -- in their own scene).

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games

These novels are all written in the first person ("I"), so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person (he, she), too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view. 

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s. The same goes for any scenes shown from the viewpoint of the antagonist or other important characters, of course.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood. 

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately describe the scene or explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character? 

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity: 

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before: 

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

Jodie’s comments: 

We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either. 

After: 

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Here’s an example of a skewed, dark description through the thoughts and observations of the villain of a novel, a nasty character, a murderer with no conscience. This is from a thriller manuscript by talented writer Dara Carr, which I had the pleasure of editing several years ago.

The setting is a tourist destination on the Pacific Coast, Cannon Beach, Oregon, with its much-photographed Haystack Rock. The popular seaside resort is usually described in idyllic terms in travel and tourist brochures. Not so in this character’s viewpoint and voice.

    A gusty wind drove a spray of grit and salt at the van’s pitted old windshield. He ran the wipers to clear his sightline. The condos, once white, looked shell-shocked and gray. In another year, Marr figured the entire place would turn into driftwood.

    Expensive driftwood. The condos were beachfront property. Personally, he wouldn’t pay a dime to live there. The Oregon coastline, jagged and sharp like the edge of a serrated knife, was good for one thing only: boat crashes. And the famous Haystack Rock? Plastered with bird shit. Home to Dr. Death, who’d plot the end of the world from his roost on top of the rock.

Note how the choice of words and imagery (voice) in the excerpt above deepens the characterization of the villain and increases tension while setting the scene.

TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE POV CHARACTER'S VOICE: 

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved. 

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling. 

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes. 

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person. 

~ Stay in character. 

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their current mood, level of tension/anxiety, physical discomfort, and sensory feelings. 

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details on setting, characterization, and action through the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude! 

For more on this topic, click on this link to go to POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View and also Captivate Your Readers.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing Guides by Jodie Renner:

~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk 

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk