The personality of the narrator is typically not the personality of the writer. It’s the personality of the character telling the story (1 person POW, see post on POW) or the narrator’s if you are using a 3rd person POW.
So how do you get a certain voice?
1-Style. You need to know the rules to know how to break them, and then do so consistently. A certain narrator speaks in a certain way. The first page can be jarring, but once you get into “the voice” you’re transported into the paper world and the magic is done.
Here are two examples of particularly jarring voices that became best sellers:
- A clockwork orage (A. Burgess)
“'What’s it going to be then, eh? There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”
- The catcher in the rye (J. D. Salinger)
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all – I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”
Pretty weird, uh? Well, you don’t have to be that extreme, but you got an idea :)
2-Keep writing. Your voice will work its way to your pages, but it will take time.
3-Use literary devices. For example in “I’ll give you the sun” by Jandy Nelson, there are two narrative voices, Noah and Jude, and they are very different. Noah reacts to things happening to him by painting scenes in his head and giving them funny titles, Jude speaks to her Grandma’s ghost and is plagued by superstitions. What’s your character/narrator thing? Do they repeat certain expressions? Vonnegut says all the time things like “I couldn’t paint for sour apples” or “and then the shit hit the fan”. What’s your device? Don’t think about it too much. Just go with the flow and it will happen.
At least now when agents, publisher and readers say that they are looking for a fresh, compelling voice now you know what they’re talking about. They’re talking about YOU :)
Just don’t forget to learn the rules before you break them, otherwise your book will look like a jumbled mess.