Ilona Andrews gives her take on narrative ‘voices’

I wrote to Ilona Andrews for advice on my writing, and the authors graciously answered me on their blog. My question was the following:

“I know the best advice given to new/young writers is read, read, read and write, write, write. So, I read and read, but while writing I’ve discovered a block I can’t seem to get past. While writing short stories or fables this doesn’t bother me so much, but when trying to put an idea for a longer story on paper, I try to stay away from emulating the authors of the genre I’m trying in – that is, I try to write in third person :] – but somehow I can’t find the voice I’m looking for. I can’t decide how to narrate my story. The narrative decides how you explain the characters and how you unfold the story, right?  So, my first question – how did you find your voice? How did you KNOW it was the right style to write your story in?

Ilona Andrews:

Emulating other authors is normal.  I’ve pointed it out before – almost every successful writer goes through a stage where he or she writes a derivative work.  That’s how we learn to write.  🙂

“…That is, I try to write in third person” – does it feel “right” writing in the third person or is this a choice you are making to distinguish yourself from other writers?  If it’s the second, then your voice troubles might be happening because you are forcing yourself into the pattern you don’t subconsciously feel is comfortable for you.  Here is a secret: at the end of the day, nobody really cares if the narrative is in the first or third person.  The questions that an agent or editor will ask themselves when reading someone’s work: are the characters engaging?  Is the worldbuilding unique?  Does the narrative move well?  Third or first doesn’t really enter the evaluation process.  🙂

The narrative decides how you explain the characters and how you unfold the story, right?”  

No.  The point of view character determines how the story is told.  We read for the characters.  The style of the narrative is always determined by the character, whether the character speaks directly (1st person), indirectly (3rd person) or the author becomes a character himself (omniscient.)

Therefore, your point of view character creates the style in which the story is told.


“Pia was blackmailed into committing a crime more suicidal than she could possibly have imagined, and she had no one to blame but herself.

Knowing that didn’t make it easier. She couldn’t believe she had been so lacking in good judgment, taste, or sensibility.

Honestly, what had she done? She had taken one look at a pretty face and forgotten everything her mom had taught her about survival. It sucked so bad she might as well put a gun to her head and pull the trigger. Except she didn’t own a gun because she didn’t like them. Besides, pulling the trigger on a gun was pretty final. She had issues with commitment and she was so freaking dead anyway, so why bother.”

-DRAGON BOUND,  Thea Harrison

(I started it last night.  Will let you know how it is.)

This is Pia talking.  Pia the scared, shifty thief, who is having regrets and is mad at herself.


“Moon. Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.

All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.

I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The Need had been prickling and teasing and prodding at me to find one, find the next, find this priest. For three weeks I had known he was it, he was next, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had spent fighting the pressure, the growing Need, rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells more with every tick of the bright night’s clock.”


Dexter Morgan, serial killer.


The Angel

In which our hero experiences Hope, the greatest gift * The bacon sandwich of regret * Somber reflections on capital punishment from the hangman * Famous last words * Our hero dies * Angels, conversations about * Inadvisability of misplaced offers regarding broomsticks * An unexpected ride  * A world free of honest men * A man on the hop * There is always a choice 

They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.

The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, insofar as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Alfred Spangler.

And he took a more positive approach to the situation and had concentrated his mind on the prospect of not being hanged in the morning, and, most particularly, on the prospect of removing all the crumbling mortar from around a stone in his cell wall with a spoon. So far the work had taken him five weeks and reduced the spoon to something like a nail file. Fortunately, no one ever came to change the bedding here, or else they would have discovered the world’s heaviest mattress.

GOING POSTAL, Terry Pratchett

The author is talking. The long-suffering, wise, secret god of Ankh-Morpork.  🙂

Think of your characters as a compass or a tinted window.  We, the readers, perceive the world through that character. He or she determine if we view other characters in a positive or negative light and his life experiences and temper dictate how the story sounds.


Kingsley was short and sort of plump. He needed a haircut and his big gray moustache was untrimmed. He had on a green and black plaid woolen shirt and a leather vest. His half glasses were halfway down his nose so he could stare over them while he talked. He looked like an overweight Titus Moody. He owned and edited the third largest newspaper in the state, and he had more money than Yoko Ono.

Parker, Robert B.. Pale Kings and Princes (Spenser) (pp. 1-2). Dell. Kindle Edition.


I was at the downstairs bar in the Parker House drinking Killian Red Ale with Rita Fiore, who was an assistant DA from Norfolk County and, myself excepted, the best-looking law person in Boston. In point of fact I wasn’t exactly a law person anymore, and in point of more fact Rita wasn’t drinking Red Ale with me. She was drinking Glenfiddich on the rocks and smoking long Tareyton cigarettes.

“The DEA guy’s name is Fallon,” Rita said. “I’ve known him two, three years, he’s okay.  Just don’t talk too fast.”

“Or use big words?” I said.

Rita nodded. Her thick reddish hair lay on her shoulders, and her tailored black suit fit snugly. Her stockings were patterned with flowers. Everything was nicely proportioned, very trim.

Parker, Robert B.. Pale Kings and Princes (Spenser) (p. 9). Dell. Kindle Edition.

What do we know about this character?  He is older – he makes references to Yoko Ono and not Bill Gates.  He evaluates other man on the basis of their threat potential: he notes that his opponent is short, soft, and has poor eyesight.  He evaluates women on the basis of physical beauty – he notes woman’s hair color and her clothes.  He is neat in his attire and physically trim, because he finds those qualities attractive in others.  He is self-aware – he knows that the woman is not there because she is besotted with him – and is prone to self-deprecation.

Think about your character.  Your character will determine your narrative voice.  🙂

Thank you, Ilona and Andrew Gordon. I appreciate the thought you put behind that answer.
I really like this duo. I admit their advice probably makes sense, but this is the kind of topic where even if everything is explained to you that explanation only becomes truly clear to you once you experience the process and learn the meaning yourself. No shortcuts there.
So despite my preoccupation with narrative styles what they are telling seems to be true – that it’s the story that matters and that the characters can explain themselves quite well if you just let them get on with it instead of analyzing every word you write. But I need to let this realization come to me through my work, because unless that happens I wont be quite convinced that it’s true. No matter if my favourite authors all say it is. 🙂
post script – I asked a second question which Andrew Gordon answered and which I’ll post after this one. It’ll be a much shorter post. 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s