Developing your voice: Part 2

In the second part of this blog I will be discussing how the ‘voice’ of the prose can be put across using the third person. You might think that the third person has such a sense of distance from the character that putting across a ‘voice’ in the text will be hard – even impossible. Not so! It just takes some craft.

Giving a clear sense of ‘voice’ is no harder in the third person than it is in the first. To clarify, when a reviewer talks of a ‘voice’ they are talking specifically of the author’s voice, even if that is only apparent through one character. In the third person that is not the case, but a clear sense of the authors voice should still, ideally, be on offer.

Take example of Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.’ With over 20 million copies sold and a film adaptation, we can assume that the voice is pretty successful (or strong) in it. Consider the first paragraph –

Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of the Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs a telephone and an old typewriter. Then there was the teapot, in which Mme Ramotswe- the only lady private detective in Botswana- brewed redbush tea.

The author talks of the charming objects used to make up the office, including a teapot. The type of tea brewed. The crucial thing, here, is that the authors voice reflects the nature of the story. Intrigued, charming, with a hint of exoticism. There is a lilt to the prose, which even reflects the continent in which it is set.

Take, by contrast, the voice used in the dystopian novel ‘We.’ Here the prose is bare, stripped back – we might even use the world brutal. This prose style reflects the nature of the story – a dystopian vision of the future (written with incredible prescience in 1926!) If you were to trouble yourself to look at the prose used later by George Orwell (who used ‘We’ as a model for ‘1984’) you’d see that it has a same stark prose. Just as the richer, more descriptive prose brings out the warmth in Alexander MacCall’s story, in good dystopian fiction the authors voice uses harder, less ornate, more direct prose. This in turn brings out a story that is harder, and more direct.

This starker prose style could be considered necessary, given the ambition of the novel. After all, Orwell is building up a whole fictional world in his novel, so bare prose, it could be argued, is needed to make it clear. But again this is not necessarily the case. In JG Ballard’s sci-fi collection ‘Vermilion Sands’, he is also building up fictional settings in some detail. The short stories in this volume concern a fully automated desert resort, complete with psychologically sensitive houses that are capable of murder. Yet the voice of the third person narrator is rich, as well as detailed. Take this snippet, for example, from the story ‘The Singing Statues’ –

Last night, as the dusk air began to move across the desert from Lagoon West, I heard fragments of music coming in on the thermal rollers, remote and fleeting, echoes of the love song of Lunora Goalen. Walking out over the copper sand to where the sonic sculptures grow, I wandered through the darkness among the metal gardens, searching for Lunora’s voice.

Here, although worlds are being built, Ballard has inflected the richness of his own style into this exotic world of metal gardens and sonic sculptures.

So, voice is not just a concern for the first person. Using a range of subtle techniques it can also be brought into the third person, too. Can anyone think of any strong examples where this has happened?


Also published on Medium.

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