The secret of narrative voice – Hannah Coates

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By Hannah Coates

Like many writers, I see character as an extension of myself. So I start with my own internal voice when crafting a new point of view character. Obviously, every narrative voice is – or should be – different. But people themselves, and that includes writers, are deeply complex and contradictory. Nobody is a cardboard cut-out with one simple want or need. So a writer should begin with themselves when crafting a character, and work outwards.♥

Trying on different voices

In Bertie’s Gift, a feel-good Christmas novel for adult readers, I had a particularly difficult and unusual task, because my eponymous hero is a dog. In fact, a number of my characters are animals, and they all get dialogue and drive this narrative – what is essentially a rescue story – forward. There are humans in the story as well, but although we experience their lives, everything they do is coloured by my main character’s perspective, i.e. that of a dog. So when I began writing my story, I had to scrabble about in my mental character box, and find a voice inside myself for Bertie – a costume that would fit the role.

Write What You Know – Right?

‘Write what you know’ is a common – but misleading – rule for writers. We can’t know for sure what it’s like to be a dog, an angel, an alien, and so on. Yet all of these can be point-of-view characters. But how to convey what we can’t possibly know?

For Bertie, who is an excitable beagle, I tapped into that teenagerish part of myself which is most like a young dog: full of energy, a bit silly, over-enthusiastic, not really understanding the way the world works, except in terms of what will get you a biscuit. I wrote in short, truncated sentences that came piling in on top of each other, like a jostling pack of beagles, and used dashes, exclamations and ellipses to indicate excitability. Any multi-clause sentences tended to focus on emotional attachment or figuring out something puzzling, rather than straight description. Everything my dog thought or felt was highly subjective, so only something that provoked an emotional reaction would be important to him. (I also remembered to look up at the world more than with a human point-of-view up!)

Character Exists At Language Level

Creating a believable fictional character is as much about language – and the structural choices you make line-by-line – as it is about action and dialogue. Most writing gurus will cite action as the key to getting inside a character’s head. What does your character do under pressure? What does your character want above all else? Want and do are primary character-building verbs. In my case, my character barks or runs about under pressure. He wants a biscuit or to escape a telling-off. But above all this, his chief, over-riding need is to love and be loyal, and to know that he is loved in return by his owners. In other words, emotional attachment has to be there in the actual prose, describing and enacting Bertie’s world in terms that suggest his core values.

There are cats in this story too, but Bertie views them with suspicion. Cats, on the whole, do not require our love in the same way a dog does. (Kipling knew that, and wrote ‘The Cat Who Walked By Himself’ with exactly the right air of cool detachment.) Bertie, who needs love the same way he needs oxygen, instinctively distrusts them. His narration slows whenever he encounters the cats, with longer, more wary sentences, and a more clipped dialogue, as he’s forced to become almost crafty himself in order to deal effectively with them.

To get inside a narrative character’s head, first think about their chief, over-riding need. Then try to convey that need at a language level, as well as through action and dialogue. Choose verbs that convey character – skip, stride, saunter – and descriptive words that match a narrator’s mind-set when they look at the world – desperate, daunting, dainty. Voice is the very essence of character, and it begins at language level. Luckily, we have a whole host of contradictions inside ourselves, and need look no further than our own voices for inspiration.

Hannah Coates is the pseudonym of an award-winning novelist who has written dozens of novels under a variety of different pen-names. As Hannah, she writes festive, feel-good fiction for grown-ups. She also writes contemporary thrillers as Jane Holland, including a UK Kindle #1 bestseller; romcoms as Beth Good; historical fiction as Victoria Lamb; and historical romance as Elizabeth Moss. Her latest book as Hannah Coates is Bertie’s Gift, out now in paperback.


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