Covering for Sensible Shoes tonight, and with some anxiety because I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about on this topic. Please feel free to disagree. This isn't even close to ex cathedra.
"Narrative voice" as a concept is like one of those coyote/Loki/trickster characters that are dear to the heart of writers who like to go all mystical, always changing form and aspect and appearing out of nowhere. When you Google it, the term seems like one of those things you learn in English 101 and are tested on in the short answer part of the midterm:
First person (Huckleberry Finn);
Second person (you don't want to go there);
Third person limited (Harry Potter, until J.K. couldn't resist good cinematic scenes that didn't include Harry);
Third person omniscient (Tom Jones, as best I can remember).
But it can get way more complex at second glance.
That second glance is at third person narrative voice (close, omniscient, drowsy, doesn't matter here).
When you write in first person, the speaker is a character, and usually a principal character, in the story. Everything the first person narrator says should be consistent with his or her character, so writing in that voice is a straightforward (though difficult, of course) matter of creating one of the story's characters.
But when you write in third person, the person who is telling the story is usually not apparent. Who is telling the Harry Potter story? Who is telling Pride And Prejudice? Can you picture the storyteller? In the latter, I'm pretty sure it's someone who's been listening all evening to a series of young ladies playing piano badly, while drinking tea with just a little too much lemon in it. Not quite the same person who tells Persuasion, I wot.
Some writers have such a distinctive style that they're immediately recognizable. Like some actors, they always play themselves. Hemingway is so characteristic of himself that there are contests to imitate him.
Most writers, though, alter their tone or their voice depending on what they're writing and for whom they're writing it. Dickens in Hard Times is nothing like Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Steinbeck changes voice from novel to novel, too. A lawyer writing a persuasive brief sounds very different from that same lawyer put into a fact-finding role (I know this from personal experience). Mockery, hyperbole, passion, careful selection of facts are all over the brief, which is written by Xena, Warrior Princess. Epic dullness, detail, and dispassion drone through the opinion -- even irony is strictly confined to footnotes. It's written by a titupping genderless know-it-all.
A third person narrator, even a "reliable" one who is never identified in the story, is a character whose choice of words and choice of detail make the story what it is, just as much as a first person narrator who takes part in the action of the story. But the fact that the narrator is an aspect of the writer makes it feel more complicated than that, hence that whole trickster vibe.
Rewrite one of these passages in a different voice. Describe the speaker of your version:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved, but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some
that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
Write On! will be a regular weekly diary (Thurs 8 pm ET) until it isn't.
Before signing a contract with any agent or publisher, please be sure to check them out on Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write and/or Writer Beware.