Examples of Narrative Voice in Fiction

Voice is the least understood of all writing craft terms in my experience. I’m still experimenting with developing authentic voices when it comes to creating believable characters in fiction. Establishing a strong narrative point of view requires separating yourself from the narrator, and clearly distinguishing between the writer, narrator and characters.

I recently came across a good example of a fellow writer experimenting with voice in her blog, “Daisy in the Willows”.  The voice was so real that, as I started to read the story,  I was pulled along by the voice and became part of the fiction about a homeless person and her tribulations. This is what an authentic voice should do, enable the reader to suspend belief and just go with the flow. Daisy’s first few lines sets the scene and grabs the reader in:

Sitting with a cup in me hand, rattling my pennies. The wind cuts through my salvation army coat—I feel bare.

Half and hour until the big brother brigade does their rounds, to come an’ clear off the debris of me, offending society, with my appearance of failure. Glasses fixed on nose bridges to hide poverty’s despicable, shining glare. It wasn’t meant to get to this point. I had a home, a family. Believe me, I was a carer. That was many years ago.

(From “Societies Ills” in “Daisy in the Willows” blog.)

An Australian teacher of creative writing, Lee Kofman,

She opens her memoir in the following way:

“While my marriage was unravelling, so was Melbourne. That summer, interest and rental rates soared and hung, suspended, above our cityscape, like menacing hot air balloons. Vacancies diminished. Families were losing their houses, students went homeless. Real estate agents grew more royally dignified and unapproachable by the day.”  (“The Dangerous Bride”)

Kofman’s voice is strong. Not surprisingly, she favours a memoir style of writing. Her favourite topic to teach to new writers is “The Writer’s Voice”.  She has a unique way of describing the voices used by different writers. She remarks on the “shamanic voice” of  Marguerite Duras in  “L’Amant” (“The Lover”). During a distance love affair, she became aware of the concept of voice when applied to her own epistolary writing style.

“I recalled what I used to teach in my writing classes but stopped applying in my own work (as the Russian saying goes, the shoemaker always goes barefoot): that writer’s voice is not something you ‘come up with’. It is something you pull out of your guts as you dive deeper inside yourself beyond the daily platitudes, beyond the anxiety to make the impression that you are a nice person. Writer’s voice emerges when you finally take the risk and put on paper what you really think about the world, even when the truth is politically incorrect, or compromising in other ways, and do this using your unique vocabulary. In writing to Daryl, I rediscovered those words that felt delicious on my tongue and resonated with how I experienced the world: picaresque, metamorphosis, serpentine, rather than those hidden obscurely in the dictionary that I used to dig out like potatoes just for the sake of showing off.” (Lee Kofman)

When I first started writing my novel, Karrana:

It’s set in country Australia in the forties, I experimented with creating a male character’s voice in the close third person point of view. Rather than using direct conversation, I tried to incorporate certain items of vocabulary to suggest his voice and personality. Will has come across a mysterious “dancing light” phenomenon while out riding at night.

Suddenly, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to get the hell out of there! Get away from the creek and out of there as quickly as he could.

The bloody light seemed to be stalking him.

Just as he got to his bike, the light seemed to dive down into the water beneath the bridge, and disappeared, as if it had emerged from there.

Will didn’t stop to investigate further. He jumped on his racing bike and sped, hell-for-bloody-leather away at full speed. He never looked back. Every nerve in his body tingled and he felt that he had escaped with the skin of his clattering teeth. Another second and he was a goner! From what? He had no idea.

Now it was fear that gave him the momentum. He sped the remaining seven kilometres faster than he had ridden in his life before. He was panting and gasping for air like a stranded perch as he pulled up at Honeysuckle Cottage. He knew that his face was white as a bleeding ghost. He waited to get his breath back and regain colour before going inside.

It was something that he would carry with him forever, buried deep within, something that he would not share with a living soul. For fear of being thought mad. Or worse: a gutless, fear-craven sheila.

The female narrator in The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs:

She comes across as a real person in the thrall of personality conflicts. The author has researched in depth the histories of the main characters in recounting Lucia Joyce’s  tragic story in the first person.  The first person voice is clear, vibrant, youthful and naiive. It suggests, from the outset, the inevitable tragedy to come. The novel begins with Lucia on her way to visit the psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and there is “a shiver in the air and a thin odour of decay drifting across the lake.” From there on the narrator is looking back, showing the  highs and lows of her own position within her famous family, and the reasons for her psychological decline.  Annabel Abbs manages to capture the Irish voice of the young troubled woman with great success in this first novel.

Point of view refers to who sees the action within a story or novel. You can have multiple points of view, so long as shifts from one character to another are adequately marked, by way of punctuation; for example by starting a new paragraph, or a new segment, for a change in point of view. Traditional novels of the nineteenth century were often recounted by an omnipotent narrator, one who saw everything, knew all that was going on and oversaw the voice or voices of the novel in an explicit way. Individual characters’ voices were portrayed mainly via dialogue. This was true of the Russian novels (e.g. The Idiot by Dostoyevsky), often resulting in large works that had a wide focus: social, temporal and spatial, united by the voice of the narrator.

It is not always easy to explain the concept of Voice, and there is a great deal of confusion surrounding this concept. The omnipotent narrator is a dying breed today, and most writers are able to call upon different voices for different creative purposes. In more recent times, the person who tells the story, the narrator, is linked to the question of voice in an often implicit way. It is, perhaps, better to give examples of this.

One good example of a perfect use of Voice, is by Tim Winton in his novel That Eye The Sky. He writes in the first person, vividly depicting the voice of an eleven year old hero, Ort Flack. In doing so, he uses a lot of grammatically incorrect sentences and sentence fragments, just as in dialogue, suggesting the young person’s voice, while at the same time being careful not to overdo the technique:

I don’t sleep that good. Never have. Even when I was little and Mum or Dad put me to bed, I’d lie awake until they’d gone to bed themselves—longer even. It’s lonely in the middle of the night with just you and the sky and the noises of the forest. There’s no one to talk to except that big sky. Sometimes I talk to it. Sounds funny, but I do. Ever since they brought me home from the hospital the time I was so sick, I haven’t slept good….Dad won’t sleep much good when he gets better, that’s for sure. Still, he’s not much of a sleeper anyway. (Penguin, 1986, p.13 )

Grammatical correctness is thus sacrificed, from time to time, for the sake of the voice: “Tegwyn and me are walking.” (p.31); “Mum makes herself a second cup, and me too; makes you feel real grown up, two cups. She looks like she’s gonna say something for a sec…and says nothing. She smiles.” (p.91)

Winton combines several techniques for portraying voice. One of these is his use of colloquial language and special vocabulary, including slang, and another is his use of short abrupt sentences interspersed with longer ones. In this way he manages to produce Ort’s voice, without overdoing any one strategy all of the time.

Another example of an effective use of Voice that I came across recently is in a short story “Dying, Laughing” by Susan Johnson, a writer who has recently returned to live in Brisbane after ten years in London. The story about a young Aussie mother is told in the third person. Kylie is totally out of her depth in disciplining her two young boys; and yet she comes across as a strongly rebellious personality, fighting depression, angry but also capable of nurturing; all shown by way of the narrator’s voice, impersonating someone like Kylie. The story contains aspects of satire, irony, humour and blackness interwoven and held together by the tell-tale voice. As in Winton’s story, the writer intersperses sentence fragments with longer sentences, and uses slang and colloquialisms to add humour and colour:

Children wanted everything! All the time, all at once! If she’d realised what a child was, before she’d accidentally made one, she would have run a mile… Bloody Nixon, born whinger, crying when he came out, starting as he meant to go on. Nixon her first born, skinny and long as a rabbit, crying on the roof. … On the floor, where he usually laid himself, full-length in front of the fridge, to be exact, his mouth open so that you could see the black pit leading into his gullet. Sometimes she wondered what she could stuff in there to stop the sound: honey? Lollies? Her fist? He had the largest pair of tonsils she had ever seen: two fat glistening nubs of flesh decorating either side of his throat, two undulating, pulsing, alien attachments that fascinated her… She knew she didn’t know much about anything, not really, so now she thought about it she wasn’t even sure they were tonsils. (GriffithReview32, p.59)
Susan Johnson

Finding a voice in fiction, is not only about finding your own voice, but about creating characters who speak to the reader in voices that are authentic and appropriate.

A nice definition: “Writing is the painting of the voice”… Voltaire

Point of View: How to Assess and Strengthen Narrative Voice – NY Book Editors: From the NY Book Editors makes the links between Point of View and Voice, but goes that one step further and shows a unique voice in action:


5 responses to “Examples of Narrative Voice in Fiction”

  1. Thanks for the interesting article from NY editors. As alwaysI still get confused about voice & POV. When writing my novel Capriccio I had no conscious idea about my characters’ voices, except that they seemed to speak to me in their own voices & I just wrote down what I heard. In fact the analysis of these techniques seem to come from an entirely different part of my mind, to the actual act of creative writing. Perhaps great writers like Steinbeck choose voice & pov instinctively, & that’s what makes them true writers. Not that I put myself in that category of course!

    1. The problem is that there are at least two different meanings of voice: 1) The accomplished author’s recognisable voice and 2) Characters’ voices. This is a simplification, because there is also the question of closeness of the 3rd Person narrator to the subject. I’m still learning about it.

    2. Thanks, Dina. It’s a complicated issue, that’s for sure. I’m still learning.

  2. Hi Anne, I came here to get a few writing pointers. Wow. What a surprise to see my words mentioned. Pov and unique style is important. Great article even without me in it. I enjoyed your analysis of finding a voice in fiction vans hope to grow as a writer.????

    1. Yes, it’s a great voice. I’m still experimenting, too. Hope you’re getting a few pointers.

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