How do you know when you’ve found your true voice? I write multi-genre, and I discovered a long time ago that the genre, or the story itself, demands the voice. I write softer, more descriptively, when I write romance. I write more directly and tersely with an action/adventure. I also write more directly when my protagonist is male, and more effusively when my protagonist is female. Back in 2013, I wrote more extensively about changing voices here.
But beyond the story suggesting a voice, how do you craft that voice? You do have choices, you know.
Most books (I would think 90% or more) use a past tense. He ran up the hill. Whether due to this majority usage or my own proclivity, I feel like past tense is a logical mode for telling a story. I believe most of us use it when we tell our own stories, like recounting our trip to the grocery story.
“I was driving along, minding my own business, when this guy pulled out right in front of me …”
To my mind, this is a natural way to tell a story, since we are recounting something that happened in the past. There are some, however, who choose to use a present tense. He runs up the hill. To tell you the truth, I have no idea why anyone would choose this method. I find it awkward and annoying. Perhaps these authors think the present tense lends an immediacy to their words or adds to the tension. Whenever I see it, the first thing I think of is a ten-year-old boy telling a whopper.
“So I’m just sitting there, you know, doing the reading assignment, and this guy behind me jams the corner of his notebook into my back and I yell. The teacher doesn’t see it, so she gets all mad at me…”
Just to round things out, there is, of course, future tense, but you hardly ever see He will run up the hill. Thank goodness.
First person means speaking from the narrator’s viewpoint. I ran up the hill. This establishes early on the single point of view for the entire story (unless your protagonist has ESP and can read minds). It’s a good device for delving into the emotional condition of your protagonist as it makes sense to describe and explain what s/he is thinking, feeling, planning. I used this in one of my books, and was happy enough with it, although it’s not what I use generally.
Second person is less about speaking from and more about speaking to. You ran up the hill. I believe this would be an awkward choice for a book, since every time you wrote something like, “You heard a sound outside and went to the window to see what it was,” your reader might easily be thinking, “No, I didn’t.” I’ve never seen anyone use second person throughout a book, but I do see it sprinkled in here and there, and I think that’s a mistake. Most of us primarily use third person (he ran, she ran), but will sometimes drop in something like, “He’s what you would call a geek,” or, “There were more of them than you could shake a stick at.” In movies, this is called breaking the fourth wall. This is when the character in the movie turns and faces the camera and speaks directly to the audience. At this point, the story-telling is interrupted and the feeling changes abruptly. The viewer or reader is suddenly pulled into the story rather than watching/reading from the outside. It can be effective, but it can also be annoying. In the above examples, I would use, “He’s what most people would call a geek,” or “There were more of them than anyone could shake a stick at,” in order to maintain the third person tense throughout.
Third person is what most of us use most of the time. He ran up the hill. This gives the author the ability to enter into the point of view of any of the characters at any time, providing more latitude to the story. That can, however, be overdone. If you’ve ever read a book where the point of view seems to change from one character to another paragraph by paragraph, the author is doing some serious head-hopping. As with any tool, this can be effective at times, but should be used in moderation. You don’t want your readers feeling like they’re watching a tennis match. See more about viewpoint basics and getting your PoVs right at each respective link.
Beyond these two prominent aspects of voice, the nuances are up to you. Match your voice to the characters, the location, the time, the feeling of the story and you’re on your way.