The Narrative Voice, if I had to actually pick a specific aspect of writing, would be the part that I have struggled with the most. The struggle has existed, for the most part, in my attempt to figure out just how it is “I” sound. That is what the narrative voice is, after all. It’s the voice of the narrator. In the case of these entries on this site, I’m writing in a much more rambling and casual style. A lot of comma-splice errors, and so forth, because of my apparently compulsion to throw in a side remark.
In the case of writing something like fiction, however, I am much more inclined to try to find a much distinct voice. With first-person narratives, I often try to imagine how it is that person would have told the story. A fault I’ve seen in some other works in workshops is that there’s nothing which makes the narrator’s voice noticeable among the crowd of other voices that exist within a story. I actually was paid to edit a novel, and sometimes would lose track of who was talking because the two primary first-person narratives read exactly the same.
Third-person presents another problem entirely for me. It’s easy enough to write a narrative of any fashion, and ask people to give their opinion on it. “The dog ran into the street, after its owner.” is essentially a third-person narrative. In a workshop, you might see people wonder why that comma is there, and so forth. However, my issue with third-person, and the main reason I thought to even start writing this, is the delivery of that narrative. And my own particular narrative voice has changed drastically over the years.
Whenever I first really got into writing fiction, I had joined a play-by-post RPG message board (an MSN site, MSN Communities which was later renamed to MSN Groups. I have no idea if it’s still around) and had fashioned up a character that fit with the kind of absence of subtlety that comes with being fourteen and playing in a gothic-themed story. It sounds silly to suggest this is the point in which I became interested in writing fiction, but it’s entirely true. Specifically, the characters I had developed while there were ones I eventually began to flesh out into something much more dynamic, and I had developed feasible stories to tell about them.
However, as one might expect, I did not sound like me. In fact, I sounded like a fourteen year old desperately trying to sound like Anne Rice. I had gotten into her vampire books around the same time, and had been borrowing them from friends or the library to get through as many as I could. Being so engrossed in the stories unconsciously shaped the way I was writing. I took on her purple prose, and by and large just sounded awful and unnatural. It was made all the worse by the fact that I hadn’t been writing anything as long as her, and I was also trying to work within the confines of the universe of the story my friends on the MSN group had been creating. There were a lot of very handsome vampires, running around in gloomy stormy areas. And they were having a lot of fights involving magic. Because of course they were.
After a few years of that, and slowly shifting away from that main story, I took to reading Douglas Adams. Which, admittedly, also influenced the way I wrote. As did whenever I started on Neil Gaiman. And, to a lesser extent, Albert Camus. I could certainly make the argument that Neil and Douglas still are a primary influence in the way I write, but I don’t really think that’s the case. Both of them had distinct methods that I personally don’t feel I’m talented enough to try to copy, and I have worked very hard over the past several years to try to write in a way that I feel best captures what could be considered “me”.
And it’s hard to keep this up. I will admit to cheating at it, if it can be considered cheating, by really just writing things I know to keep it sounding natural. To my credit, when I actually do decide to write things like this, the workshops I’ve been in have often said that my narrative voice is very distinct. It’s not usually included with any actual qualifiers, but that my voice is heard whenever someone reads my words is generally something I feel like being proud of. Granted, if you happen to stumble upon this, you aren’t exactly going to read it in my voice. Without hearing how I verbalize these things, you may very well miss emphasis that I had. I do feel like how these words are appearing in this post are more natural than they were, say, seven years ago. I can hear myself better than I could before.
One of the biggest steps for me in establishing this voice was realizing, on a third-person level, what it is that people may believe about the narrator. A common trait that I remember seeing in various play-by-post forum games is that beginning writers feel the need to exist in that state of near-purple prose where everything is described with a level of pretension reserved for the J. Peterman catalog. People don’t “look” at things, they “turn and gaze with crimson-hued orbs, narrowed by pale lids, toward” things. Being someone who wrote like that, I can safely say that it’s pretty exhausting trying to come up with such elaborate methods to say “he looked over there”. The kind of stuff I mention up there does not sound natural, and often times seems to be there to just make up for the fact that the person isn’t writing anything of substance. I make up for my lack of substance by having a lot of long sentences, and a lot of tangents about things, in the middle of my paragraphs. Also, commas. Commas, like adverbs, are generally frowned upon. But I kind of like the way they can be used to imply certain things, if you know what I mean, and bend the sentence in a way that allows for an expression of mood that might otherwise be missing. Adverbs, not so much. “He laughed sadly” is usually what you end up with that, and there are many better ways to say that.
To give an example: In one of the essays that I wrote for a creative nonfiction class, I chose the topic of anxiety. And in the workshop for that piece, I had a specific paragraph that was pointed out as being probably the most accurate representation of anxiety that one of my classmates had ever seen. Said person also was one of the people who said that I had a very distinct writing voice. It was a nice feeling of accomplishment, to have that moment where I really felt like what I was writing was something that was mine.
I’m hoping, to say that least, that if I manage to keep doing this that I’ll be able to recapture that feeling.