Voices: The Invisible, The Awkward, and the Downright Distracting

characters and viewpoint second edition Orson Scott Card

A great book for new and veteran writers alike

I know it’s my schtick ’round here to write about science fiction, but after writing that review last week about The Hunger Games, I had the idea to take some time to visit a trans-genre topic currently plaguing my own writing: choosing the right voice for the right sort of writing. As I mentioned last week, Suzanne Collins uses an unusual tense in her Hunger Games series, but it works well with the style of her writing, and for what she does in her story. So why did this work or why shouldn’t it have? Well, picking the right voice and tense in your story is more important than you might think, and I’d like to address a few issues to consider while picking the best ones for your own story, with a little help from Orson Scott Card’s book on writing, Characters and Viewpoint.*

Different Voices for Different Purposes

You already know what I’m talking about. For different situations, certain “voices” (levels of formality, vocabulary, tone, etc.) are appropriate, and we all switch into these almost automatically. Whether you’re chatting up your closest friend or politely (or not so politely) declining an offer from a telemarketer, it is common to switch into different ways of speaking depending on who you’re talking to. The same goes for writing, although the differences are obvious- when you’re speaking to someone, you can read their reactions; offering further explanations, backpedaling from a stupid comment, or changing on the fly how you continue the conversation. In writing, you have only the words on the page, and no direct access to your audience (unless you make a practice of reading your writing to a writer’s group, which our group here at LHP would recommend), and you have the advantage of being able to formulate your words on the page in a clearer way before they are presented.

In a way, these tendencies translate to writing fiction, but not just in the different personalities of your characters- the narration of the story is its own voice, even when written from the viewpoint of a person present in the story. The narration of the story is how your story is told, so the way you handle this directly affects how your story is received by your audience. While deciding the attitude and tone of the narrative voice is its own form of characterization, the basics to decide are the person and the tense of the writing.

A Primer On Person

For those of you who slept through high school English, here are the “persons” I’m talking about:

Person:                    Singular:                Plural:

First Person           I go                           We go

Second Person     You go                    You (all) go

Third Person         He/She goes         They go

First person accounts are often used to narrate personal accounts, allowing the reader to get inside your viewpoint character’s head and feel and see what they experience. Second person is much less common and very difficult to use in fiction, but it’s been done before. It’s used speaking directly to the reader, often in an imperative tone (You do this, you do that, etc.). Third person is the other most commonly used person, used to describe an event that happened to another person.

First and Third person are the most commonly used in fiction, and there’s a good reason for that- they tend to be the easiest to use to tell a story. Try writing anything in Second person other than instructions or a recipe and you’ll see how odd it feels as narrative style, but there are examples out there.

Well, that’s all for this week. Next week I’ll show you some examples of tense and some of the best ways to use them, and take a look at why Suzanne Collin’s method worked for her story (and if it would work for yours).

Until then, anyone come across a weird narrative style in a book, like Second Person?

*I’ve learned a lot from reading this book and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn some tricks about how to develop strong characters and a deep world. Orson Scott Card is a multiple award-winning author in Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, but he is most famous for the Ender’s Game series.

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on August 17, 2011, in Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Style and Structure, Writing Hints and Helps. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. It’s still first-person narrative, but I’m reading a rather old sci-fi book called “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlen. He writes the whole story in a characteristic Russian grammatical accent. All the words are spelled the same, but he tends to skip things like ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘she’, ‘I’, etc. For example, “We ran down list, giving our conclusions. Then tried to explain to Mike…” or “Am not going to argue whether machine can…”

  2. Matthew Stover switches between third and second person in his novelization of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. He does it quite effectively, imho, which is one reason why I think the novelization’s better than the movie.

  3. All the choose-your-own-adventure books from my youth were second person narrative. 🙂

  4. I feel like I should rise to the challenge and write a second person, future tense novel. About a quest to save the world from a rabid sheep.

    Instant best seller.

    • Agh don’t do it, it’s so annoying- That’s going to be more or less my topic next week: why we shouldn’t experiment with person and tense just for the sake of experimentation.

      It’s likely that the resulting novel will be unreadable, or at least it will alienate a good-sized chunk of your potential readers from the start.

    • Perhaps you should start with a short story then. 😉

  1. Pingback: The Heroic Hero of Heroism: How to Write a Hotshot Who’s Not Too Hot | Lantern Hollow Press

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