POV choice and narrative voice
For a while now I’ve been promising to write a series of posts about omniscient point of view. The reason I’ve delayed is that I simply haven’t had the time to write articles that will do justice to the topic. Although my time is still at a premium, it’s too important a topic for me to put off any longer, especially now that I’m seeing more indie authors who using—and misusing—omniscient POV because they don’t understand it fully.
Before I can properly discuss omniscient POV (“omni POV” hereafter), we need to look at the reasons one might want to use it, as opposed to one of the other POV choices.
A few months ago I did a post on HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST POV. You might want to review this if you didn’t read it previously.
Choosing which POV to use boils down to one thing: narrative voice. I’m sure you’ve all heard the term “voice” used in reference to writing. What exactly does this mean?
In everyday terms, a person’s voice really refers to two things: the sound of the person’s voice and the personality conveyed by the person’s speech. Most of the time we only refer to the way a person sounds when talking, but we’re also aware of the personality behind those sounds in terms of content, word choice, accent (foreign or regional, if any), and the overall delivery pattern of speech. In short, we can learn a lot about people and their personality just by the way they talk, even if we never see their faces.
In writing, we can’t see the characters directly except through descriptions from the author, and we can’t actually hear them talk. Instead, we use look at how the author’s choice of words to convey a character’s personality and attitude. We’re all familiar with the character voices in animated features, and we’re often surprised to find out who the actors behind those voices are. This is what we mean when we refer to voice in writing. It’s not just the words but how they’re colored and delivered that forms the voice of the character.
But it gets a bit more specific than this. Narrative Voice generally refers to the overall voice of the piece of writing. When it’s nonfiction, narrative voice generally refers to the author’s voice, because the work is about the author. In fiction, narrative voice refers to the voice of the narrator, who is not the same as the author of the novel. This is usually the main character, but when multiple characters are telling the story, it refers to the voice of whichever character is narrating at the time.
Keep in mind that the “narrating character” does not need to be a first-person one. When we’re writing in third person, we’re still telling the story from the character’s perspective. We’re just less up close and personal.
To demonstrate what I mean by voice, here are six passages, each in a different POV, from my novel More than Magick, which uses multiple POV characters, but never more than one per scene, which is head-hopping. I’ve talked about head-hopping before, and will discuss it again in the upcoming posts on omni POV.
Although the following passages are brief, in some you will see a bit of the character’s personality, and in all of them the difference in voice should be apparent.
[3rd POV=JAKE KESTEN]
Jake got back to his apartment around nine that night. He dropped his overnight bag on the floor and flopped onto the couch, facing a black TV screen. Two days ago he’d been comfortably entrenched in near academic anonymity. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Sure, his language translation program worked. His thesis proved how it could break down a language into its basic linguistic elements, but he’d only tried it on known Earth languages. Bryce’s mystery language defied description, other than a vague Oriental appearance. If Jake was certain that no way could he decipher even the smallest part of it in a few days, he was more certain that, as beat as he was from the last two days, no way could he sleep now. He closed his eyes anyway.
* * *
[1st POV=SCOTT MADISON]
My senior year in college had ended. On this Thursday morning, the day after finals, two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. As dorm resident advisor, I had to stay until the dorm was empty. They gave me free room and board in exchange for babysitting undergraduates. In the past year I had learned to be tolerant; I had learned to counsel; I had learned when to shut my door—all valuable, real-world skills.
* * *
Arion felt the unmistakable ripple, the interruption of a Mage’s power, pass through him and knew at once that Marhesse’s feared prediction had come true. A moment later he saw the Light spells that lit the library beyond his study go out. Inside the study, as if nothing had happened, the light of the ensconced candles continued to flicker off the red, stenn wood that paneled the walls and low ceiling.
* * *
Jen-Varth shivered miserably. The night cold on this fringe-world called Ranor tore into him. He clenched his shoulder and chest muscles to squeeze the minute, residual warmth in his body to the surface and increased his already brisk stride. His skintight thermosuit wouldn’t let him freeze to death. Small consolation.
He raised his head. In the dim light of Ranor’s twin moons, the uninviting barrenness of jagged landscapes with scant flora the same dull green as the soil spread itself on both sides of the semi-road. A few distant hills broke the monotony. From above, the stars cast hostile light at him. He usually welcomed the night as a friend that heralded the end of his miserable days. This night was not his friend.
* * *
Everyone liked Kedda, or rather, everyone liked Kedda’s money. Each night Kedda the gambler came here to play cards. Each night his purse was full. Each night he lost.
How could this man, who carried his own deck of cards, who used them in the game—the other players let him because he couldn’t possibly be cheating—always lose? This puzzled Kart as well.
From behind the bar, Kart surveyed the Common Room of his inn, the Silver Spectre, illuminated by lanterns and waning daylight coming through the three front windows. In the corner, across from the entrance, sat two chain-jacketed mercenaries enjoying Kart’s famous ale. The longshoremen, who were usually well into a drunken stupor by now, had been delayed by two late-arriving ships. Rysten’s innkeepers, Kart in particular, knew what went on in the town.
* * *
Trax leaned against the brick sidewall of the bakeshop and chewed a stick of dried meat while he surveyed the morning streets of Jocathan for the promise of funds. The girl—her name was Nistenna—who had made him a man last night on his sixteenth birthday, deserved something very nice.
Before that, over supper, Mylane had once again pressed him to select a legitimate trade. He’d already decided on that. Even though the Thieves’ Guild wasn’t officially recognized in Jocathan, it operated much as the others did, except that its apprentices didn’t openly boast or announce themselves. Of course, Mylane wouldn’t let him apprentice there, but then she wasn’t his legal guardian. At sixteen he could apply for membership, which he planned to do after he finished this little job. He knew they’d put him through some sort of test. The best young thief in Jocathan didn’t see that as a problem.
All of these except the second one are in third person. In the second passage (first-person POV), this is the main character of the novel. I chose first person for him because I needed to bring him more to the forefront of the narrative, and I felt that he’d connect better with the reader if I did so.
These illustrations should help you to see how the choice of POV also affects the voice. You find a lot of modern YA fiction written in first person is because first person can often create a strong voice that will draw the reader in. But do not use this fact alone when deciding to use first person. As I’ve written in some previous posts, first person is not as easy to write well as many new writers believe. Doing a poor job of it will negate any benefits first person might give. The choice of POV is only one of the decisions you must make when writing your story or novel.
In the next post I’ll begin my series on omniscient POV and in those posts I’ll give advice on when you might want to use it and how to use it properly, along with examples. This isn’t an easy series of posts to write, and I will try to complete them as quickly as possible, but I may have to space them out in order to do the subject justice. I do promise to complete the series before the end of the year, though.