In Search of the ‘Voice’ of a Book

The ‘voice’ of a book…? Call it voice, call it style. Call it meter or rhythm. Every book has its own shape, uses its own literary palette; a language specific to the author or work in question. It’s part of what makes a book unique.

Mind you, finding your own ‘voice’ is not an easy matter for an author. So once it’s found most writers do tend to stick to that singular delivery. If it works, use it. Though, of course, there are many ways to deliver a story, and I’d like to use my own work as an example.

When I’m working on a book that requires me to tell the story from the point of view of someone watching the action – in other words when I’m writing in third-person – the style and delivery I use is my own, personal storytellers ‘voice’. I’ve written three books in this manner, among which THE BRUGAN is a good example. It’s a humorous fantasy adventure for older children, but with a particularly sad underlying theme… that of personal loss. In the early planning I did consider allowing the central character to narrate her own story, but decided that, to help soften the emotional blows, I should tell the story on her behalf, in third-person. Here’s how THE BRUGAN begins:

Sarah Lemming? What is there to say about Sarah Lemming? Her name gives nothing much away.
Sarah Lemming is as thin as string, with granny knots for knees. Her face is as pale and lumpy as a plate of yesterday’s cold rice pudding. She’s got this wild frizz of bright red hair that’s about as easy to comb as a roll of barbed wire fencing – it makes her look as if she’s in a permanent state of shock. And you should see her on the move; it’s like watching a mistimed explosion of fireworks. She’s all gangly arms and legs, jerky fits and starts and streaks of red hair. About as graceful as a broken stick thrown for a dog!
No, Sarah Lemming is not a pretty sight. The gawky stage, her mother calls it. Plain ugly, say the boys at her school.
She’s the kind of girl who gets left standing on her own in the school yard at break times. You’ll know the sort. Twelve years old and as dizzy as a teapot lid. The original loopy-loo who should never be listened to! Or, at least, that’s what everyone’s always telling her – even the grown-ups.
Why? Take your pick.
It’s on account of her being mad. It’s on account of her having just far too vivid an imagination. It’s on account of her seeing things she should not see. You know. Things that nobody else can see. Things that don’t exist. Things that aren’t really there.
Like what?
Well, like the Brugan.
The Brugan?
Ah yes, the Brugan. The Brugan was a . . . The Brugan is a . . . The Brugan . . . (Forgive the hesitation. It’s just that it’s not always easy to explain the seemingly impossible.)
Put it this way. When was the last time you met a creature so flighty he could stop the whole world from turning, stop it dead, and for no better reason than he felt like it? A creature so wild, so dangerous, he could switch off the sun – click! Who could take your school (for example) and turn it into a medieval castle, change his mind and turn it into a supermarket, change his mind again and turn it into an overgrown tropical rain forest. And do it all in a single draw of breath!
And this is no joke. This is serious stuff. For real, and meant. Every word of it.
Of course, even Sarah Lemming didn’t really know who or what the Brugan was the first time she met him, or understand his truly awesome power. If only she had done—!
Ah, but wait. There’s no point in us getting carried away with the Brugan . . . not just yet.
This will not be making a lot of sense to you, not be sounding at all likely, perhaps? And maybe you’re already thinking, Sarah Lemming must have made the whole Brugan thing up, just to make fools of everyone? Either that, or else she really is as mad as they all say. Yes, well . . . that’s not her fault. And you’d do well to give her the benefit of the doubt, to take what you’re told the best way you can.
First off, her story does not begin with the Brugan. You might almost wish for her sake that it did. But no. Sarah Lemming’s story begins, sadly, with a death . . .

So, there we have me, the author, telling a tale in my natural storytellers ‘voice’. However, when I’m writing a book in which I want a narrator to tell their own story – in other words when I’m writing in first-person, from the point of view of the narrator – my approach and delivery changes. I create and allow the narrator to write in a voice and manner that is unique to them and their own particular set of circumstances. So the delivery of the story is quite different each time; in written language, in rhythm, and in literary palette. I’ll give you two examples:

My very first book, SPILLING THE MAGIC, was written for older children, and is told ‘first person’, from the point of view of a bright, imaginative but largely uneducated young lad from the North of England (where the beginning of the book is set). I wanted him to speak in his local everyday language; to bring a sense of immediacy to the tale. His descriptions are inventive, if he’s not too concerned about his grammar… The book begins:

Want to know a secret, a big’un? Well, do you? I was never much good at keeping secrets. Not whoppers like this.
What can I possibly know worth telling, I can almost see you thinking? Well, I know . . . I know that pigs can fly. I know that real dragons are vegetarians. I know that lots of things aren’t what they seem to be, and that proper magic works. And, I know that you can help save a whole world from being snuffed out to nothing, without even knowing that you’re doing it.
Yeah, go on – laugh. Daft fairytale stuff. Well, do you know something? I couldn’t care less whether you believe me or not. And if you’re still interested you’re just going to have to get on with it. Start right at the beginning. The summer before last, the day I was sent with my sister, Mary to stay with The Stringers.
You see, if we hadn’t been sent to stay with the Stringers, there would have been nothing to tell . . .

*

It was a stinking hot morning. The kind that sends buckets of sweat dribbling down the inside of your shirt. And the air was too thick to breathe. I had to chop it up into little bits and suck it between my teeth just to swallow it. Well, nearly.
The rotten bus had dropped us off at the bottom of Lemington Hill. We – Mary and me – we wanted to be at the top of the hill. Some holiday this was going to be.
‘I still don’t see why they couldn’t have taken us with them,’ Mary said. She was sulking. She had been sulking ever since leaving home. I swear, if I hadn’t picked up my suitcase and walked away, I would have thumped her.
‘I don’t want to hear it again, Mary,’ I said, and attacked the hill with giant steps. Row after row of tiny red-brick houses and grubby little corner shops crammed the hillside. Windows and doors were slung open all over the place – it was so hot even the buildings were panting for breath.
Dad had said their holiday was a sort of second honeymoon – for Mam. ‘You know Billy, after her bother and the hospital and that.’ He had given me one of his knowing looks that was meant to explain everything, but didn’t. ‘The Stringers are canny enough. And you won’t mind not going with us just this once – will you?’ Another knowing look, and a touch of his nose with a finger. I ignored his fib about the Stringers, pretended to understand, shook my head and touched my nose. Grown-up stuff.

Many years later, when I came to write GRAYNELORE – a fantasy novel for grown-ups – I once more found myself wanting to use a narrator to tell the tale. But, in contrast to the young lad of SPILLING THE MAGIC, this time around the narrator is a grown man and a very different proposition. He’s a killer, a thief, a liar and, as we come to discover as the story unfolds, he’s also fey… a faerie. More than that, his world is the imaginary fantasy world that is Graynelore. The rhythm of the narrator’s speech, his rich, sometimes complex use of language, and the other-worldliness of his descriptive tone are all deliberately used to reflect this. Here’s how GRAYNELORE begins:

I am Rogrig, Rogrig Wishard by grayne. Though, I was always Rogrig Stone Heart by desire. This is my memoir and my testimony. What can I tell you about myself that will be believed? Not much, I fear. I am a poor fell-stockman and a worse farmer (that much is true). I am a fighting-man. I am a killer, a soldier-thief, and a blood-soaked reiver. I am a sometime liar and a coward. I have a cruel tongue, a foul temper, not to be crossed. And, I am – reliably informed – a pitiful dagger’s arse when blathering drunk.
You can see, my friend, I am not well blessed.
For all that, I am just an ordinary man of Graynelore. No different to any other man of my breed. (Ah, now we come to the nub of it. I must temper my words.)
Rogrig is mostly an ordinary man. The emphasis is important. For if a tale really can hang, then it is from this single thread mine is suspended.
Even now I hesitate, and fear my words will forever run in rings around the truth. Why? Put simply, I would have preferred it otherwise.
Let me explain. I have told you that I am a Wishard. It is my family name… it is also something rather more. I say it again, Wish-ard, and not wizard. I do not craft spells. I do not brew potions or anything of the like. No. My talent, such as it is, is more obscure. You see, a Wishard’s skill is inherent, it belongs to the man. You either possess it or you do not. (Most men, most Wishards do not.) It cannot be taught. As best as can be described, I have a knack. Rather, I influence things. I make wishes, of a kind.
Aye, wishes… (There, at last, it is said.)
Forgive me, my friend. I will admit, I find it difficult, if not tortuous, to speak of such fanciful whimsy. Make what you will of my reticence; measure Rogrig by it, if you must. I will say only this much more (it is a caution): by necessity, my testimony must begin with my childhood. But be warned: if I tell you that this is a faerie tale – and it is a faerie tale – it is not a children’s story.
Please, humour me. Suffer Rogrig Wishard to lead you down the winding path and see where it takes you. There is purpose to it. Else I would not trouble you.

There you have it then. I hope you can see that as I strive to give each of my books their own identity, the search for the correct ‘voice’ is an essential part of my creative process. The rhythm of the words, the vocabulary, the very punctuation, are not simply perfunctory tools used to carry the tale but are always an integral part of the telling of the story.

Books referred to in this blog:
Fay by Stephen MooreSpilling the Magic by Stephen MooreGraynelore by Stephen Moore

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2 thoughts on “In Search of the ‘Voice’ of a Book

  1. This is such a good post! “The Brugan” would have been unbearably sad in first person, you’re right. And Rogrig and Billy were both wonderfully vivid in first person.

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