Authorial Voice: not just another POV

I used to think that Point of View (POV) was as singularly straightforward in novels as it is in real life. By default, we see the world only through our own eyes, so many authors (including me) naturally write our fictional scenes from the perspective of one character.

It wasn’t until I began polishing Ferry to Cooperation Island to submit to the publisher that I recognized the need for an additional and quite distinct POV: authorial voice. Readers will always need more background than the characters themselves in order to “see” the character’s world, so we authors need to slip in bits of information without distracting reader from story. Now I’ve come to recognize authorial voice as a very important item in the novelist’s toolbox.

What the character sees

We first meet James, the main character in Ferry to CI, sitting at his usual table on the deck of the island’s only coffeeshop. The first person who talks to him is the pregnant waitress; when she comes out through the door, James—a man of few words—would probably be thinking to himself, “Patty, with refills.” If that’s all that appeared on the page, though, the reader might stop reading to wonder, “Who the hell is Patty?”

Enter authorial voice, which prods James to paint us a picture of pregnant Patty: “She carried a steaming glass coffee pot just above that huge apron-covered belly. Twins, maybe?”

Engaging the reader isn’t as simple as introducing the POV character and then presenting the world from his unique perspective (even though great writers make it look that simple). Characters shouldn’t appear aware that there’s someone reading over their shoulder (unless it’s a very conscious part of the plan); instead, it’s the author’s job to understand when more information is needed, and then find a way to present it while allowing the reader to remain engaged.

Allow me to introduce…

Meeting new characters is one of the best places to use authorial voice. The reader wants signposts that quickly indicate who each person is and how they’re important to the story. The usual in-person greetings should be edited right off the page; “Hey, how’re you doing?” “Just fine, thanks. Nice day, isn’t it?” doesn’t teach us anything about the two speakers or move the story forward. Instead, the most memorable introductions start with details that could only come from the character’s POV. Here’s another example from a certain book that will be available in June of 2020: “Courtney shivered, mostly from the cold. What was she doing out here on this hard gray New England island, so far from the friendly sloping lawns and bright-colored houses of her Chesapeake home?”

Tool, not crutch

When used to convey information from the POV character’s perspective, only a fellow writer will notice the shift to authorial voice. Used as a crutch, though, it can be quite distracting. Genre fiction often includes conversations between characters that provides information they already know: “Remember how Uncle Harry first met Aunt Jean?” “Of course, they were on the same volleyball team at that tiny college…” “…Which is the same school where their son goes now.” And so forth. I have no idea where this off-the-cuff example might go next (probably nowhere), but assuming some (or all) of these details are important, they would be much less noticeable if conveyed by a soupçon of authorial voice.

Just like real life, a character’s point of view is usually quite obvious. Telling their unique story, however, requires understanding a world they take entirely for granted. That’s why it’s so important for an author to step in every once in awhile, dropping in the key details we readers don’t yet know we need.

Have another thought about authorial voice? Comment below, or send me an email. Thanks for reading!