When it comes to narration and point of view, character voice can really set a book apart. Much of getting into a character’s head (or getting the character into the reader’s head) is getting across how they think, how they speak, how they are. Characters with distinctive voices are characters that get remembered.
Reading is the most important thing writers can do; it is truly the closest thing to an apprenticeship we have. By deconstructing books that work, we can figure out at least some of the magic that the brilliant authors have used when concocting their stories. This is the second in a series of posts which will include recommendations for books that excel at different aspects of the craft. To view all the posts in this series, click here.
1. The Catcher in the Rye
This is a controversial one: people either love or hate this book, and some of that probably has to do with the fact that it’s often assigned in high schools. But most of the feelings on this book, surround the character Holden Caulfield, whose voice is so real and so honest, that he sparks a genuine reaction in almost every reader. Even if you think you don’t like this book, take a page in it and examine the narration to see if you find anything worth noting.
2. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
If Patrick Ness has one talent, it’s character voice. He is a master at creating teenage characters, and giving them dialogue and thoughts that feel real and authentic. This particular book makes fun of the ‘chosen one’ trope, focusing on the kids in the background; bits of it are ridiculously fun, bits of it are a tad cheesy, but all of it is wrapped up in the narration of a character that you can’t help but believe in.
3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
In this book, Sylvia Plath interweaves fiction and memoir to create an incredibly honest portrayal of mental illness and the descent into insanity. It is as dark and shocking as you would expect, but the writing is exquisite; Plath’s poetry has wonderful rhythm and voice, and the way she applies to fiction is wonderful. Pick this one up for both a distinctive narrative voice, and a really well written character arc.
4. Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Foreign Soil is a short story collection of non-white people and their experiences on foreign soil, and it is honest and disconcerting. Some of the stories are written in accent or dialect, and the voices are so distinctive and raw. This is an affecting read, but it is wonderfully crafted.
5. American Pycho by Bret Easton Ellis
When I picked up American Psycho, I was not expecting it to be so literary, or to have such a strong narrative voice. This book is very, very dark. It is not a pleasant book to read, and I hesitate to recommend it, but it’s worth the experience. The narration here is almost similar to The Rosie Project, despite the contrasting subject matter. Patrick Bateman is a character who walks the line between intriguing and horrifying, and the mystery of who he is and why he is really drives the novel.
- The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, for giving a narrator such a distinctive voice, that many people with autism spectrum disorders thanked the writer for his honest and accurate portrayal, despite the writer never having mentioned any disorders in the novel. If American Psycho is a little dark for you, read this one instead.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusack, for mixing voice and poetry to deliver wonderfully lyrical narration, and for giving Death a voice on human tragedy.
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, for a wonderful portrayal of grief and love and loss. Here, the narration is characteristic without ever sacrificing the quality of the writing.
- The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, for finding a story within the mind of a woman who chose to be locked up in a room for the rest of her life.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, for capturing the culture of Alabama (and much of America) inthe 1930s within a combination of narration and dialogue. While I have issues with some aspects of this novel (including the way race is portrayed), there is no denying that the character voice is brilliantly crafted.