Mastering voice is one of the trickiest aspects of writing. In this blog post, Sharlene Teo examines how writers can effectively utilise multiple voices to create authentic points of view in their novel.
“Voice – by which I mean the distinctiveness and stylistic imprint of prose, is one of, if not the foremost delight of the novel. I’m thinking of the sardonic wit of Ottessa Moshfegh’s misfit heroines, or the lyrical cadences of Ocean Vuong’s epistolary narration in On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s supernaturally perceptive and wise omniscient narration takes us through the joys and tumults of being a foreigner in both a new land and your own country.
Writing with different voices, then, offers both the writer and reader a kind of imaginative versatility, the ability to hop from one perspective to another within the same story, observing an event or scenario from different and mutually illuminating or complicating angles.
My debut novel Ponti is told in two first person perspectives and one third-person strand. The first-person narrators are one-time teenaged best friends, Szu and Circe, outcast Singaporean schoolgirls whose wall-eyed view of the world is mirrored in their caustic voices. The third-person omniscient strand unravels the story of Amisa, Szu’s cold, glamorous faded movie-star mother. The narrative distance from her, outside-looking-in, reflects her aloof and oftentimes unknowable character. When trying to separate between the two first-person narrative strands, it helped that Szu was narrating as a sixteen-year old and Circe as a jaded thirty-something.
This leads me to my first tip on creating voices: pay attention to word choice, cadence, and appropriate age register. Circe spoke and talked in more of a clipped, terse manner. Szu was more contemplative and gentler in tone. Expanding upon this point leads to my second top tip: make sure you know your characters well enough to differentiate them. If you’re employing multiple points of view in third person, it helps to keep the narrative “camera” trained as closely to your character as possible; be careful you don’t stray too far from the character you want the reader to be focusing on.
Another tip is to make sure that each foray into each characters’ consciousness illuminates, deepens or challenges our prior understanding of them. Therefore, make sure your multiple perspectives are evenly paced. Try to seed new meanings and layers into each episode featuring each character. You can borrow from the intensity and ambiguity of the short story form in this regard; give us an insight into multiple characters’ perspectives around an event, or a meaningful object, or a self-contained episode in a character’s life, something strange and somehow defining. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You uses the names of colours to achieve a startling and effective fictional, multi-voice painterly effect in writing.
Another way of ensuring the POVs are distinct is sharpening and refining each character’s world view, clarifying it for yourself: so, one character could be much more cynical and pessimistic, the other more naïve and cheerful, so on and so forth, and this world view should dramatically affect both the decisions they make and how they react to the world around them. Let’s take the example of a splendidly sunny day. From one character’s point of view, that could be perceived as a good sign, a cheering encouragement that s/he has everything going for them; to the pessimistic character, even sunshine and birds chirping can seem like a slap in the face.
As a final tip, voice comes from confidence, comfort and practice. Make sure you’re reading a variety of fictional and non-fictional voices in order to connect to the multiplicities of language. Look to contemporary poets: Mary Jean Chan, Kayo Chingoyi, Sandra Lim and Will Harris just to name a few, for how they deploy vividness, economy and originality in language.
Have fun and don’t be too harsh on your own attempts. Ultimately, a novel gives both the reader and writer the ability to hop around different ways of being in and seeing the world; exercise that imaginative freedom and capture its specificity on the page, and hopefully you’ll end up with a story full of multiple layers of insight, humour and pathos.”
Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Award and Edward Stanford Fiction Award, longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and selected by Ali Smith as one of the best debut works of fiction of 2018. She holds fellowships from the David TK Wong and Elizabeth Kostova Foundations and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize and her non-fiction has appeared in publications such as the TLS, LitHub, Tate Etc, Wasafiri, The London Magazine and the upcoming Sceptre Books Anthology East Side Voices.
Published 12 October 2020