Thursday, August 20, 2015

On the Subject of Voices

No, I am not going to discuss the voices in my head. Neither will I confess to communicating with them. Fine, so maybe I do. A little.

However, I have heard several remarks about my choice to use an alternating first person narrative for my story Wither in the Five Enchanted Roses collection. I thought I would spend a few minutes this week expounding on some of the pros and cons of such a narrative selection.

There are several positives to consider. First of all, if you are choosing to write in a first person narrative, you have chosen to do it for a reason. A lot of authors like the first person narrative, which seems to have become more popular in recent years, because it allows the author and the reader to delve more deeply into the main character's thoughts and emotions. Your goal is to focus on one character and expound on him as much as you can. All other characters will, by necessity, take a lesser stage. For a character driven story, this is certainly a positive. So if you are planning to write this type of story, do not shy away from the first person perspective. I chose to use an "alternating" first person perspective because I did not want to be limited to the mind of one character, but I did not want to lose the immediacy and intimacy of the first person narrative. It was difficult, let me tell you. But, there are several tricks you can pick up and a few pitfalls you can avoid if you choose to make a similar journey. Here are a few things I have learned along the way.


1. The biggest positive for the Alternating First is that it allows you to get intimate with both of your main characters--your hero and your heroine. In fairy tales, you almost always have both, and often times one or the other of them seems to take the back stage. By using an alternating voice, you get the best of both worlds, the male and female perspective, both sides of the romantic conflict, both sides of the heartache. You are not limited to the emotions of one character. You get to FEEL with them both. I find it makes me more sympathetic to characters that are often easy to misunderstand, such as a certain Beast we all know and love.

2. The Alternating First broadens the stage for you audience similar to an omniscient viewpoint while keeping the intimacy of the first person. Imagine yourself looking at the ocean with blinders on. Sure, the lapping waves in front of you with the little bit of blue sky above is beautiful. You can feel the heart of the sun on your skin, you can smell the salty, fishy smell of the water, you can feel the hot sand beneath your bare feet. But if you take off the blinders and see what is hanging around your peripherals, you see so many things you could not see before, like the little boy to your left squealing in delight as his big sister buries his chubby legs in the warm white sand. Or the surfer to your right rising up over the water just as that perfect wave crests.


1. As I mentioned earlier, there are also some pitfalls to avoid. There were several things I struggled with in the early drafts of my manuscript. The most challenging was learning to keep my two voices distinct. This is especially hard for authors, because we are only one person. WE only have ONE voice, but characters have many, and we must learn to let them speak. One of the problems I ran into is that I have a quirk with fragments. I love sentence fragments. I think they add great emphasis and punch, especially at the end of chapters when you want to end on a hook. I also think they break up the narrative nicely, especially if you have some lengthier paragraphs and little dialogue and want to break up the flow and make a quick punchy point. However, this is a quirk that belongs to ME not necessarily my characters. In my early drafts, both of my characters used fragments extensively. For one thing, it was poor writing to use them so freely, and secondly, it caused both of my characters to sound alike. At the urging of the Rooglewood editing team, I tried to eliminate the fragments in Bet's narrative and limit them strictly and cautiously to Corwin's. So instead of the fragments being MY quirk, they became CORWIN's. They gave him a stronger voice and helped him become distinct from Lilybet.

2. It's also easy to confuse your readers. This ties into the first comment, but requires a little further note. In a first person perspective, you do not have as many name tags to differentiate between your characters, so you must be careful to clearly state who is speaking and when. Instead of using chapter headings, I chose to clearly state the character's name at the beginning of each chapter. I also tried to fall into a decided pattern of alternating chapters, so that there would be less confusion over who's turn it was to speak. In my early drafts, I needed to change my plot a couple of times in order to accommodate the speaking order, but it made for a stronger, less complicated read when all was said and done.

3. And, yes, this leads into my third problem, which is not favoring one character over the other. Because you have chosen to give both characters a voice, you must deal with them in equal measures of time and love. In my early drafts, Bet had a much larger word count, but I did not connect with her character as easily which resulted in some of her narratives falling flat and not being as endearing or believable. When I spent some more time with each character, fleshing out Corwin's narratives and diving deeper into Lilybet's emotions, the true heart of my story began to emerge. I could not believe how much more I loved the end result. It was the same story, but with a few extra paragraphs, a few more carefully constructed details, the story had come into its own.

So there it is! In case you are one of those lovely people who actually enjoy homework, here are a couple of books I recommend if you want to do some research with this writing style. My first suggestion is The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. This is an excellent example of an alternating voice. The story is told from two perspectives, the hero and heroine. I have read several reviews which complained the voices were too similar but I disagreed with them. The writer's talent and gift for language were ever present in both narratives, but Sean possessed a reserved and brooding voice while Puck's was fiery and snarky. I truly enjoy the two voices in this story. This story is also a good example of how you can take a fantasy setting and make it feel undeniably REAL. There was never a moment when I did not feel as if Thisby was a real place, with real water horses and honest-to-goodness November cakes. As a caution, there is a bit of swearing and gruff language which might offend sensitive readers, but it is minimal. It is a slower story and the climax feels a little brief, but the beautiful language in this novel truly make it worth the wait.

My second suggestion is The Host by Stephanie Meyer. While this story is NOT an alternating narrative, there is a character within a character that fits many of the topics I broached today. In this story, there is a character trapped within the mind of the main character, so you are artfully exposed to the memories and emotions of both characters, although Wanda certainly  has a stronger presence than Melanie because she is the personality in control of the Body and the one telling the story. Also, it has a very interesting love triangle. I am not usually a huge fan of love triangles, particularly if one person is waffling bitterly between two potential loves. I don't mind when a character has feelings that are not reciprocated--that's a bit different. But I find it frustrating that one character always ends up without the girl and have the bad habit of falling in love with HIM instead of the hero. But that is usually my fault, not the book's. In this story there are two girls trapped in one body in love with two different men. Because their emotions are bleeding over into one another, and because Wanda is an innocent who has never experienced love, she struggles with sharing Melanie's feelings for her boyfriend but she eventually comes into her own. It is an interesting study of character voice. There may also be a bit of swearing in this one, but I honestly cannot remember. This one is a gripping story that has a slow beginning but once you get hooked you will not be able to put it down. And it's a nice long book. I love those.


  1. Thanks for a peek inside the writing process for Wither. :)

  2. Oh my goodness, this post was so helpful, thank you! I am writing an alternating first-person manuscript right now, so I'm glad to know these things before I'm too far into it.
    Was there any particular reason you chose Corwin to have the most sentence fragments?

    1. It simply seemed more fitting to his personality. He was a "hermit" with a broken heart and tragic past so using more fragments with him just felt natural, while Lilybet came from a fairly stable and loving home, with more opportunities for socialization.