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September, 2006 : Feature:

Narrative Voice and Authorial Voice

We have talked about voice before in this column in connection with slipstream, especially reader perception of voice. (1) This time we're going to tackle the author's use of voice, the elements that contribute to voice and how it is created.

Every work of fiction has a voice, be it the voice of the fictional first-person narrator, or the voice of the implied author—the controlling presence or "authorial voice" behind the characters of the story. The distinctive qualities of the author's voice are manifested by his or her method of expression (for example, an ironic narrator or a lyric persona), specific language, and so forth. So-called "transparent" narrative is just as much a form of voice as fiction which explicitly calls attention to its own language and plot devices—the difference is more like that between those who stand in a corner at parties observing, and those who make sure that people notice what they are up to.

"Voice" when understood in this way has also been referred to as the "implied author," a term coined by critic Wayne C. Booth. The implied author is the author as perceived by the reader in the story. Obviously, real, physical authors can create different personae and different voices within their works, making the implied author a fictional construct who influences the relationship with the reader: "The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self" (Booth 138).

It is the choices the author makes while writing that determine whether voice is perceived as neutral or withdrawn on the one hand, or so distinctive as to create a presence approaching an authorial narrator on the other. For example, in the opening of John C. McLoughlin's The Helix and the Sword (1983), we can see a case of a distinctive narrative voice intruding directly into the text.

Song indeed—and is it not said to soothe the savage breast? Or was it "beast"? And so, for the last evening before arrival at Troy Prime, as the Regent's sweep Catuvel began the slow contraction of her radial muscles, the steward Dyson Tessier offered a concert and dinner for the pleasure of the influential company in his care. (1)

Even the chapter's title, "In which a civilized man must prepare dinner for beasts," puts the reader on notice of a certain attitude which will infuse the novel. That's clear in the opening lines, which belong to no character in the book at all, but rather to the overarching narrative voice of the text itself. At the same time, the impression an individual reader has of the actual author, and with it authorial voice, also influences his or her experience of the story—for example, whether the name on the cover is male, female, or ungendered through the use of initials or an ambiguous name. As with any aspect of the reader experience, the author does not have complete control over how voice is perceived. There are, however, a number of choices the writer makes during the writing process which are decisive in the creation of voice. Two of the most important elements determining voice are point-of-view and style.

Point of View

The most common types of point of view in contemporary fiction are first person and third person limited. This was not always the case, however; in late medieval epic romances, which were the predecessors of both the modern novel as well as the genre of fantasy as a whole, the narrative voice was usually that of an ostensible author or teller of the tale—even though many of these works have come down to us anonymously, such as the French Arthurian romances making up the Vulgate Cycle (2) upon which Thomas Mallory based his Morte D'Arthur. (3)

In these tales of chivalry, written both in verse and prose, the narrative voice is external to the actual events, freely interrupting and commenting on what is happening. A number of early novels continued this tradition, probably the most famous of which was Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Well into the nineteenth century, this authorial p.o.v. remained one of the most common narrative forms next to first person narration. The preferred narrative stance in science fiction and fantasy, third person limited, did not supplant the omniscient and often authorial narrator until the twentieth century.

In both cases, however, the text continues to have a voice, even if it is often more muted in third person limited than it is in the case of editorial omniscience, in which the narrative is dominated by an authorial voice speaking on occasion as "I" or "we." It is not point-of-view (who is telling) or perspective (where the tale is being told from) alone that determines voice; it is everything that makes up how the reader perceives where the narrative is coming from and how it sounds.

There are a number of distinctive p.o.v. techniques going beyond straightforward first person or third person limited that can have a decided effect on how voice is experienced by the reader:

  • The fallible or unreliable narrator, as Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956). This is generally told in first person, seeing as a certain amount of deceit on the part of the narrator is the main characteristic of such tales.
  • Neutral omniscience, in which scenes are rendered as an omniscient author would see them and not as any individual character would, but without direct comments by any kind of author figure.
  • Self-conscious narrative, which draws attention to its own fictional nature. This tends to be a form of first person or authorial narration.

The most obvious element that determines point of view is who is communicating with the reader: Is it a dramatized author using third person narration? Is it a character telling her own tale in first person? Or is it ostensibly no one?

There are several other elements, however, that we often neglect when considering point of view. For instance, from what position or angle regarding the story will the tale be told? Or, in other words, where will the "camera" be? Will it be focused on only one person or will it shift? Will the story be told from above, from off to the side, or from the center of the action? What channels of information will the narrator use to convey the story to the reader?

All of these aspects of narration combine to help create the voice perceived by the reader, but how that voice sounds is determined by the tone and the language used.

Style, Language and Tone

Style is an almost intangible quality of fiction which arises largely from language and tone. The writer's diction, the choice of words, the kind of dialogue, the sentence structure, all these create the style, which can be anywhere from baroquely detailed to extremely minimalist. Tone, on the other hand, refers to the attitude the narrative seems to take toward its subject matter, which can be influenced by word choice as well as the outlook of the narrator. On a relatively uncomplicated level, a story can convey intense and serious interest in its characters and events, or it can signal, through use of humor or irony, that the reader is not to take these particular characters as seriously as they take themselves. Between these two extremes, there are many shadings of tone.

To return to the McLoughlin, the following example shows how word choice affects the impact of the text, both in support of the voice, as previously cited, but also to develop the tone which is inextricably linked with that voice.

To complete Tessier's discomfiture, the Regent's fool son Homar princeps was aboard as a representative of the Regency house, Stirps Semerling. This unfortunate specimen had responded to the unaccustomed responsibility by taking to vituperation, solitude and, with far than his usual enthusiasm, brandy from his no-Charentan vineyards. (3)

Some writers, such as Gene Wolfe in his Shadow of the Torturer (1980), have deliberately employed an elevated and even obscurantist speech register to create a specific feeling of depth and agelessness through overblown archaicism.

Our necropolis is said to be the oldest in Nessus. That is certainly false, but the very existence of the error testifies to a real antiquity, though the autarchs were not buried there even when the Citadel was their stronghold, and the great families—then as now—preferred to inter their long-limbed dead in vaults on their own estates. But the armigers and optimates of the city favored the highest slopes, near the Citadel Wall... (10)

This technique of using language as an explicit tool to manage the reader is risky—it will alienate many readers, but deeply hook others.

A different approach to diction is transparency of language, such as practiced by Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game (1985).

The other boys had already chosen their bunks when Ender arrived. Ender stopped in the doorway of the dormitory, looking for the sole remaining bed. The ceiling was low—Ender could reach up and touch it. A child-size room, with the bottom bunk resting on the floor. (40)

Card's choice here is to adopt a vocabulary and sentence pattern which intrudes as little as possible on the reader's consciousness. This kind of style provides a comfortable reader experience, creating the illusion of the narrative playing out in the reader's head like a movie, not drawing attention the actual words. The two techniques contrast much as dining at a restaurant featuring exotic, unfamiliar cuisine contrasts with Sunday dinner at grandma's—both can be very satisfying, but the experience is profoundly different.

Putting it all Together

All of the choices the writer makes, consciously or subconsciously, concerning point of view, perspective, language, tone, and style meld to create the storytelling voice. Often, these elements are so intertwined it is difficult to keep them apart. Certain kinds of diction are much more likely to produce certain tones—for example, a garrulous narrator using slang or dialect often contributes to a humorous effect or tone. On the other hand, a writer who is aware of such conventions can also subvert them for dramatic effect. Tragic events relayed in a very dry, uninvolved tone, if done well, can have an even stronger effect on the reader that a tight third person limited point of view from a character caught up in what is happening.

Samuel R. Delany uses a formalized and experimentalist external narrative voice in much of his work, Empire Star (1966), for example.

He had:
a waist-length braid of blond hair;
a body that was brown and slim and looked like a cat's, they said, when he curled up, half asleep, in the flicker of the Field Keeper's fire at New Cycle;
an ocarina;
a pair of black boots and a pair of black gloves with which he could climb walls and cross ceilings;
grey eyes too large for his small, feral face; (1)

This voice stands out for both its structure on the page—the nonstandard paragraphing—and the strange speech pattern embedded in it. Much as Wolfe's language choices do, this draws attention to the story itself, and thus explicit awareness of the construction of the work becomes part of the literary experience. It is worth noting that Shadow of the Torturer has a fairly conventional first person p.o.v., though Severian is arguably an unreliable narrator, thus enabling the reader to cope with the high-flung language without also having to unravel the mysteries of narration or structure. Delany, on the other hand, adopts essentially the reverse approach in Empire Star, with radical narration and structural tropes told in elegant but fairly plain language not too different from Card's at the word level, while adopting explicitly deformalized patterns of speech more appropriate to urban oral storytelling.

Any combination of these techniques can drive an experimental approach to storytelling that steps outside the reader's default expectations and creates a striking voice. Hal Duncan's Vellum (2005) is an excellent example of a novel which has found significant success both critically and in popular sales, while at the same time being so profoundly characterized by non-linear, fractal structure, extremes of narrative technique and unusual language choices as to be undeniably experimental, with a voice as powerful as anything published in recent years.

"O father Lord Ilil, do not leave your daughter to death and damnation. Will you let your shining silver lie buried forever in the dust? Will you see your precious lapis shattered into shards of stone for the stoneworker, your aromatic cedar cut up into wood for the woodworker? Do not let the queen of heaven, holy priestess of the earth, be slaughtered in the Kur.
"If Lord Ilil will not assist you," she said, "go to Ur, to the temple of Sin, and weep before my father. If he will not assist you, go to Eridu, to Enkiís temple, weep before the god of wisdom. Enki knows the food of life; he knows the water of life; he knows the secrets. I am sure he will not let me die."
Thick with Trees and Thunderstorms
North Carolina, where the old 70 that runs from Hickory to Asheville cuts across the 225 running up from the south, from Spartanburg and beyond, up through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a land thatís thick with trees and thunderstorms. Itís on the map, but itís a small town, or at least it looks it, hidden from the freeway, until you cut down past the sign that says Welcome to Marion, a Progressive Town, and gun your bike slow through the streets of the town center with its thrift stores and pharmacy, fire department, town hall, the odd music store or specialist shop thatís yet to lose its market to the Wal-Mart just a short drive down the road. (27)

Narrative voice and authorial voice are, as Duncan might say, a short drive down the road from one another. Inextricably linked in fact, arising from their interdependence on one another. Definitive characterizations of the two are likely to remain elusive, but careful study of approaches to voice is enlightening to us both as readers and as writers.


  1. "Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?" IROSF, April 2005. [back]
  2. For more information on the Vulgate Cycle, see "The Vulgate Cycle" on the Norton Anthology of English Literature site. [back]
  3. A number of medieval Arthurian texts are available from the Camelot Project. [back]

Works Referenced

Bester, Alfred. The Stars My Destination. New York, NY: Signet Books/New American Library, 1957.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961.

Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game (1985). New York, NY: Tor, 1986.

Delany, Samuel R. Empire Star (1966). New York, NY: Bantam, 1983.

Duncan, Hal. Vellum (2005). New York, NY: Del Rey, 2005.

McLoughlin, John C. The Helix and the Sword (1983). New York, NY: Tor, 1984.

Wolfe, Gene. Shadow of the Torturer (1980). New York, NY: Timescape, 1981.

Copyright © 2006, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Sep 27, 17:33 by IROSF
A thread to discuss voice.

Ruth and Jay's article can be found here.
Sep 28, 00:10 by Dave Goldman
"The fallible or unreliable narrator, as Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956)."

Um, not in my copy.
Sep 28, 08:17 by Jay Lake
Not in my copy.

Argh, that's what I get for writing on an airplane and not doublechecking my fallible memory.
Sep 28, 13:11 by Dave Goldman
that's what I get for writing on an airplane and not doublechecking my fallible memory.

I knew the airlines were making us check carry-on liquids now; you're supposed to check your memory, too? (Doubly?)

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