Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, for an audience of one or thousands, whether your work is commissioned or done for free, you owe the reader a smooth journey.
Their tour guide through whatever terrain you’re constructing is your narrative voice. Sometimes that voice is simply your own, or some version of it, in which case that task is simpler. Or so it would seem on the surface.
If you’re a journalist, there is a rather rigid standard of language and perspective – meaning objective observation – that applies. If you’re writing an editorial or review, your subjectivity is not only allowed, but also encouraged, and depending on your editor and the agenda of the overall context, your unique personality can flourish.
Most of the time when it comes to non-fiction, you are leaving yourself out of it as much as possible, unless of course it’s a memoir or travelogue or some other autobiographical assignment.
In fiction, your “vocal” range can and should vary wildly, whether the story is being conveyed via first, second (rarely used these days), or third person.
If you’re writing a story from your fictional character’s point of view, you will definitely need to separate your voice, sensibilities, opinions and experiences from that of your narrator, even if they’re intertwined subconsciously, or at least invisibly, where the audience is concerned.
That can get tricky.
Stitching Together a Matching Pattern
If you’re writing a roman a clef – basically a work of fiction inspired by true events, but with the names changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty) – you have artistic license to bend facts, but not motivation or expression of your characters, regardless of whether they’re based on actual people. In fact, this is especially relevant if the source of inspiration is obviously historical, however cloaked for legal and creative purposes.
This is also true if you choose to use a public domain character, like Frankenstein, in your story. Certain expectations must be met, even if you’re reinventing the mythology. “Frankenstein” must be recognizably “Frankenstein,” and yet your interpretation of Mary Shelley’s famous creation must also be true to itself – otherwise you will wind up with a crazy-quilt of quirks, whims and traits that feel more like a sloppy pastiche than a truly unique, if previously invented, flesh and blood being that both pays homage to the original and expands upon the concept, for which you get all the credit.
The way to do this is to give your Frankenstein a particular personality that remains vivid and credible throughout any circumstances you put him (or her) in, so that the reader’s mind is never distracted by inconsistencies in the storyline, or its telling.
The best way to self-edit and check to make sure your narrative voice is intact is to read it back to yourself out loud. Does it sound like a single person (or monster) is telling this story? And if the storyteller is an omniscient observer, does his or her voice sound like its coming from the same place, with the same purpose?
Even if you’re writing an experimental piece that fluctuates stylistically, within that framework you need to come off like everything you’re attempting is intentional. Readers only put up with authors that break established rules if they get the sense the writer actually knows the rules he or she is bending in order to offer something special, not because they’re simply rambling for the sake of filling up space with random words.
Whatever story you’re telling, whether it’s true or imaginary, your voice is the only thing that gives it depth, meaning, and purpose to the audience. If your voice isn’t both authoritative and authentic, the reader will lose interest in the piece, and faith in its author.
Consistency is the key to credibility.