Writing About Writing: I Hear Voices

By Michael S. Katz

Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite writers. He specializes in historical fiction, and his Richard Sharpe series is what turned me into a fan of the genre. Recently he has been writing a series set in the early tenth century, known as The Saxon Tales. The lead character, Uhtred, was born in England but taken and raised by Vikings, then later in life is forced to fight against them in a campaign to unite England.

All of these novels are told in first person narrative. In the eighth book in the series, The Empty Throne, Cornwell mixes things up: at the beginning of the book, the narrator is Uhtred’s son. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as it opened up a whole new world, allowing us to see things through the eyes of a different character. The narrative soon enough switches back to Uhtred, however; and although I like the main character I found myself hoping that the son’s voice would return at some point. It is not a convention I see very often.

Some authors may change the point of view from book to book, but not chapter to chapter. And most commonly, when the latter is done (such as in a book with multiple main characters), the overarching “voice” is that of a toneless, omniscient narrator who simply describes what is happening. We don’t get too far into the inner workings of each character’s mind, only their surface thoughts and feelings: Character A does this and thinks that, then Character B does this and thinks that, then Character A does this and thinks that, etc. In my opinion, delving deeper into the minds of multiple characters is something that is difficult to pull off.

Author Dianne K. Salerni does it, and does it quite well. She writes a series of fantasy novels about a magical eighth day of the week; the first book is titled (appropriately enough) The Eighth Day. The book is written in third person narrative, yet there are two distinct “voices” that take turns throughout the book: that of the main character, Jax, and that of Evangeline, a magical being trapped in the eighth day. Interestingly, chapters told from Evangeline’s point of view are set in a completely different font from the rest of the book. Furthermore, Evangeline is not privy to much of what exists in “the real world”, so even though all narrative is in the third person, we see how her knowledge is limited by being born and raised in a world outside our own.

The second book in the series, The Inquisitor’s Mark, again tells the tale from two points of view. This time, however, the protagonist’s point of view is offset by that of a new character: his cousin, Dorian. Again, the chapters that identify with Dorian are set in a different font from the rest of the book, and the information in those chapters is limited to what Dorian would know (as opposed to what only Jax would know). The author, Dianne Salerni, does a nice job of keeping the two characters separate. Even when they often interact within the book, chapters that are told from different points of view are rigidly enforced.

These are just a couple examples based on books I had recently read. I hope that Dianne Salerni is honored to be compared to Bernard Cornwell. I know I would be.