Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share her tips on strengthening your main character’s voice, especially when writing in third person POV. Enjoy!
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Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredby Jodie Renner, editor & author

Thanks, Joe. There’ve been some great articles here on The Kill Zone and elsewhere about “voice” in fiction and how to develop an authentic, compelling voice that readers will love. To me, the key is in recognizing that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of your main character.

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.

These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view.

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream.

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character?

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before:

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.

After:

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Tips for keeping narration and description in the POV character’s voice:

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling.

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes.

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.

~ Stay in character.

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their present mood, level of tension, and sensory feelings.

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude!

Fiction writers and readers – what are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2013

Related articles by Jodie Renner:

Show Your Setting through Your POV Character: http://www.crimefictioncollective.blogspot.ca/2013/03/show-your-setting-through-your-pov.html

Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copyhttps://killzoneblog.com/writing-techniques/info-with-attitude/

Voice – That Elusive but Critical Ingredient of Compelling Fiction: http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/voice-that-elusive-but-critical-ingredient-of-compelling-fiction

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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62 thoughts on “Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice

  1. This is a timely post. I just commented to my writing partner that her twelve year old girl character needed her own voice, even though she’s writing third person. I love a novel where each character is easily identifiable just from reading the narration. It puts me in their frame of mind. This will be a challenge for me as I begin my next novel, where I’ll be using characters as far apart on the social scale as they can get. Thanks for the great advice. Let’s see if I can put it to work.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ron. Using characters who are very different will create excellent contrast and juxtaposition, and the resulting mosaic will be richer for the depth you’ll go into for each character! I look forward to the results!

  2. Thanks to Joe Moore for inviting me back to this excellent blog! I look forward to meeting you and co-author Lynn Sholes at Killer Nashville – and hearing more about your WIP! 🙂

  3. Great tips, Jodie. I’ve used the journaling idea to flesh out a character. First person really plugs you in. Writing YA in first POV really opened my eyes to that.

    Have fun at conference. Have a drinky-poo for me.

    • Thanks, Jordan! But to me, writing a whole novel in first person POV can be limiting in many ways. So for greater depth and flexibility, I advocate using several third-person points of view, but all deep third, showing their reactions to everything around them. And writing it first as a journal entry or in first-person is a great exercise to developing greater depth in third-person.

    • I agree on the limitations of all first, especially when you’re plotting mystery & crime fiction, where you can use red herrings. In my YA, I’ve used a combo of first and third without any issues. In my latest HUNTED series with HarlequinTeen, I had a large cast of characters and chose deep third. That worked well for that book.

  4. One of the things I dislike most is when the author steps in to insert his/her own view, whether for humor’s sake or explanation. I’m glad you pointed this out. I can’t pick up a book and find an occurrence exactly, but when it happens I want to scream!

    “Killer” is my preference. I’ve read “Sizzle” already. Great book!

    • Thanks for your comment, Diane. I hate that, too! Authors should stay out of the story, I think! It’s jarring when we’re suddenly wrenched out of the story and the character’s point of view for an explanation or description.

      I’ll enter your name into the draw for “Writing a Killer Thriller.”

  5. Very good post as usual, Jodie.
    And as mentioned before, a very timely one for me too as I’m currently working on draft 2 of my current wip.

    BTW, since I already have Killer Thriller, I’ll stay with the one that sizzles. 🙂

  6. There’s no substitute for being true to the character. Get out of his/her way and let her/him tell the story. It’s really about giving up your own ego (Oh, this is such a clever turn of phrase, or this is how cops on TV sound) and build up the character’s. My WIP was supposed to be third person, but the character just insisted that he was going to tell the story, so I had to step back and let him. And I think what works for him isn’t that he’s so smart or clever, on the contrary, he’s kind of lost. But he keeps trying to figure out what he can do about it, and solve the problem. An actor once told me that his secret was every character, even the maid or the third spear carrier from the left, in every play is a love story – just find what the character loves and play it with that passion. Sizzle

  7. I love the idea of writing the scene first person to really get inside the POV character’s head, and then revising it into third person. I have to try that! This post is full of great, fresh ideas. I’d love to “Sizzle!”

  8. Great tips as always, Jodie. In my second draft of my most recent book I had to go back and make sure that my 10-year-old really did sound like a 10-year-old. I think in the first draft we do tend to make characters all sound too much alike and we need that second and third drafts to get these distinctive voices right.

    • So true, Maryann. Many first-time authors don’t realize the importance of and necessity for various rounds of revisions, focussing on different things each time, like, for example, reading the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural and in character, or watching for info dumps, etc.

  9. Jodie, my WIP is in first person. I need to show a relatively short scene (~1000 words) from the past that connects the protagonist to the antagonist. I’m writing that in tight 3rd person. Right now its a stand alone chapter. But I’m not happy with the interruption to the overall flow.

    I could present it in dialogue or as short flashbacks. What do you think? Sizzle, I already have Thriller.
    `

    • Brian, I can’t see flashbacks working for that, as flashbacks are the POV character thinking back, and in this case it’s the POV of a different character. I also don’t really see how dialogue would work for that…? I know a lot of bestselling authors switch from first-person to third person for other characters, but I personally find that jarring. Even worse is starting in third person then suddenly switching to “I”. My immediate question is “Who the hell is this ‘I’ we’ve just been introduced to?” My advice would be to write the whole thing in third person, with multiple viewpoints, but mostly in the POV of your protagonist. That would allow you so much more flexibility, and the transitions between POV characters would seem much more seamless and organic. And third-person past tense is what readers are most accustomed to, anyway.

      I’ll put you down for Sizzles. (If you like “Killer Thriller”, I hope you’ll write a review of it on Amazon. 😉 Thanks in advance! )

  10. I really learned a lot from this article, and I’m looking forward to implementing these techniques in my next round of revisions. It’s so helpful to read in clear language the answer to a question I couldn’t even figure out how to articulate! Thank you for this, and I’ll certainly check back on this site for more great tips.

    I prefer “Sizzles”. 🙂

    • Thanks, “Unknown.” I’m glad you find my tips helpful.

      I’d love to add you to the list for “Sizzles” but don’t know how I’d contact you if you win, without a name or email address.

  11. Awesome post Jodie. Very helpful for where I’m at right now in my historical suspense novel. 2 things that are really helpful is writing the scene in 1st person to get inside the POV of the characters head…and trying stream of consciousness writing. I’ve never done either one when I’m writing in 3rd person. I’m going to try it…I’m sure I’ll be amazed by the results. Sometimes I wonder if I get out of the ‘fictive dream’ and into ‘author mode’…which does make the descriptions and emotions too bland…besides not helping the story;(
    What a great post! Would love to be entered for a chance to win “Style that sizzles”…thanks so much!

    • Thank you for your comments, Lorna. If my ideas help you engage your readers more and bring your story and characters to life, I’m thrilled!

      I’ll put you down for “Sizzles” and will announce the winners at the end of today.

  12. Jodie–
    Everything you say makes sense–and I think the following is especially noteworthy: “Beware of slipping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers….” So true. When an author does this, s/he has forgotten a cardinal rule: show, don’t tell. If you feel it’s necessary to explain what’s meant, something is wrong. And similarly, when a writer anticipates the future by telling the reader what a character will soon feel or experience, the writer is attempting to dictate the correct response to what will come. Not good. If you get it right, the reader will know/feel what you want known or felt.

    • Thanks for your comments, BW. I like your comments, “If you feel it’s necessary to explain what’s meant, something is wrong.” And I hate it when the author buts in to say “If Jane had only known what was ahead, she would never have taken that turn” just as she’s turned. Let the story unfold on it’s own, don’t direct it and give the reader asides! Too meddling! LOL. Here I go. Thanks again for your great comments, BWK! 🙂

  13. I share good fortune with Joe in that Jodie is likewise my editor and friend!
    Great post, Jodie!

    To all TKZers – the clarity and keenly focused instruction present in this JR article is typical of what you will find throughout “Sizzles” and “Killer”.
    I wish I’d had them as resources a long time ago.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Tom! Glad to call you my friend, too. Likewise, thriller readers are in for a huge treat when your riveting novel “Nerve Damage” comes out. Get those final revisions done asap! I’m dying to see this great book in print! 🙂

  14. “Style That Sizzles and Pacing With Power” sounds like my cup of tea Jodi since I do not write Thriller novels. So what am I doing hanging out here? I think great writing and craft transcends any genre, so I’m mostly a lurker. The timing of your wonderful advice couldn’t be better. I am struggling between Omniscient and Third person POV at the moment. I am writing a mainstream, Coming of Age novel, and do not want it to come across as YA. It’s a bit tricky, so your book is now on my TBR list. Thank you for this post! 🙂

    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Karen. I’m a huge proponent of Deep point of view or close third-person POV; in fact, I’m presenting a 90-min. workshop on it in a few weeks at Killer Nashville, so I strongly recommend that for engaging your readers and bringing your characters to life on the page. Omniscient is rarely used these days in popular contemporary fiction, and for good reason.

  15. Thanks Jodie – some great advice here. Voice is always critical but I think in YA even more so – and tricky when writing in the 3rd person as you don’t want it to sound stilted. I hate it when the narrator’s ‘voice’ gets in the way and I am taken out of the story.

  16. Thanks for your comments, Clare. I feel the same way! Just stay in your main character’s (or POV character’s) voice for the narration of that scene, too, not just their dialogue, and they and the scene will seem so much more real!

  17. Good post Jodie. POV is so important to keep track of the story. I’ve never tried to write first person POV primarily because it feels too limiting to me. It seems like it’d be hard to get the reader to empathize with the bad-guys (or vice-versa) if they couldn’t see inside their heads. Of course this fear may only be due to lack of experience at trying 1st person. If I ever did it would likely be interspersed 1st & 3rd person chapters or something like that. The drill of doing a chapter 1st person then converting it sounds like a good one to try though. Perhaps I shall try that soon, and I expect that what comes out may well be a “Killer Thriller”.

    of course I may need to read that book first 😉

    • Hi Basil,

      Thanks for your comments. I think multiple third-person POV is very useful for finding out what the villain is up to, and also finding out things the protagonist doesn’t know. Personally, I don’t want to empathize with the bad guy, though – I want to fear him and worry about how the good guy is going to survive and win out. But by getting into his head, we find out how nasty and diabolical he is and it really adds to the worry and tension and suspense. For me as a reader, I’m not crazy about interspersed first person and third person. That’s kind of jolting to me. I’d rather see everyone in third person. Maybe other people feel differently.

    • Basil–
      I’m with you about feeling limited by first-person storytelling. Not only that, but it’s less interesting from the writer’s point of view. How much more fun it is to “take all the parts,” rather than having to funnel everything that happens through one character. I suppose I should add that I’m not any good at first-person narration. I can do it as an essayist, not as a fiction writer.

  18. “it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict.”

    I like this part of your article, Jodie. Taking the time up-front to get these all-important characterization elements firmly seated makes so much sense. I’m working with a writer’s group now on these very issues, especially the strong views, baggage and inner conflict.

    What’s the best way in your opinion to let the Antagonist in on these hot-buttons for the Protagonist, and still maintain the pace of the action?

    Oh, maybe your Styles that Sizzle and Pacing for Power might work well for me?

    Thanks for posting on TKZ today.

    • Hi Paula,

      Yes, that’s so important. That’s a big question and one I’d have to think about. Off the top of my head, though, I’d design an antagonist who would naturally push all the wrong buttons, as he has different values, etc. And work on your protagonist’s weaknesses and fears – if he’s afraid of heights, for example, put him in a situation where he has to deal with heights and survive.

      I’ll put you on the list for my “Sizzles” book.

  19. “I just read the URL in the kill zone. Eureka! I understand: Even though one is writing in a third person, you still write the narration in the personality-style of the person who is in focus. That explains David Brown and other famous writers work and why they write good fiction. It’s very subtle!”

    Comment from Thomas Meller (author/client of Arlene Prunkl)

  20. Outstanding tips, Jodie. Thanks so much for all your input–here, in your books and blog. I have Thriller and Sizzle already. Thanks.

    In many scenes, I like to look at the event from nearly everyone’s POV. I get unique perspective on the setting, characters and the action. Like this one time I was in New Orleans and the setting hit on all my senses. There was humidity, mold on the walls, actual water weeping out from ???. And the odor of blooming flowers wafted in through the window. I’ve never forgotten how overwhelming the “scene” was to whatever else was going on.

    • Thanks, Jim! If you haven’t written a short review of my books on Amazon, I hope you will!

      What you’ve described in New Orleans sounds like one person’s impressions, one person’s POV, but using all five senses, which is wonderful! That really brings both the scene and the character to life for the readers! Go for it! I look forward to reading your writing.

  21. I’ve been inspired by all the tips to rewrite my book that I’ve left on the shelf for some years. It haunts me and I am compelled to write. I’d love to see “Killer” at this point in my life. Thanks for the inspiration and tips.

    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Suzie. I’m glad you find my tips helpful. I gave away the two e-copies last night, but Writing a Killer Thriller is only $3.88 as an e-book on Amazon! I know you’ll find lots of goodies in it! 🙂

  22. I enjoyed this post. I always have trouble writing in third person because it feels too distant from my main character, but your suggestions make it seem more doable. I’d love a copy of “Sizzle!”

    • Thanks, Helen. Glad you find my suggestions helpful. Unfortunately, I awarded the two winners last night, but “Sizzles” is only $3.88 on Amazon — and I know you’ll find it really useful. Also, I have more books in the works on this kind of thing. Good luck with your writing!

  23. I like the idea of a stream-of-consciousness journal in the character’s voice. I’m struggling with writing a character who’s an abused woman; the difficulty is making her fears and actions real without lapsing into cliche. I’ll try the “diary,” for sure. Thanks! Good suggestions. [Sizzling]

  24. Being removed from the experience is the biggest problem I keep seeing in contest entries I judge, especially, as noted, in third person. There is often a lack of sensory reaction.

    One writer I was helping wrote that as a pre-teen he watched the Blue Angels air show, then went home and swam. I knew the author, so I asked: Well, were the planes loud? Were they fast? Did you like them?? 🙂

    A distanced 3rd POV is like those previews of 1st person shooter video games–things are happening, but the watcher of the screen doesn’t feel anything.

    A deep or reactionary 3rd POV is like being in a paintball game. Adrenaline is pumping, you’re breathing hard, and if those balls hit you, those suckers hurt big time!

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