...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Finding a Narrator's Voice from Susan J. Kroupa

by Susan J. Kroupa

“My, Doodle has quite a vocabulary,” one of my editors said when she was critiquing Dog-Nabbed, the latest Doodlebugged Mystery. Oops. She didn’t mean that as a compliment. Doodle, the narrator of the Doodlebugged books, is a dog. More specifically, an obedience-impaired labradoodle who routinely gets in trouble in his job as a bed-bug detecting canine. 

As a narrator, he has a certain “voice” which means he uses a certain vocabulary. Note that I didn’t say “as a dog” he has a certain voice. Dogs, cats, dolphins, trees (yes, I once read a section of a book narrated by an old oak tree) can vary in their voices as much as their human counterparts.

Any narrator can have a compelling voice, the kind that draws you in like a magnet and holds you through the story. The kind that feels as if a real character—not some author behind a keyboard–is telling the story. Lots of things go into a good voice—word choice, vocabulary and education level, the expectations that the narrator has from past experience and from hopes for the future, and what the narrator happens to notice or not notice. A strong voice, along with its twin, point of view, separates average fiction from the kind of book you can’t put down.
So. Early on, when writing the first Doodlebugged book, I had to make decisions. Would Doodle’s voice be slangy and fun? Or smart and self-educated like the dog narrator in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain?  Would he have a regional accent like Gabriel, the Appalachian black and tan hound in my story “Gabriel & Mr. Death”?

I went for slangy, a little sarcastic, but a bit metaphor-impaired. Doodle’s smart, but as a dog he tends to take things literally and doesn’t always understand the phrases he uses. For example, in Bed-Bugged, Doodle says, “When it rains, it pours. This is what the boss says. He means we now have a lot of work, though I have no idea what that has to do with rain.” 

That’s why my editor questioned my word choice when I wrote in Doodle’s voice, “I don’t think it’s my fault exactly that the leash has become inextricably bound to some particularly grasping blackberry vines” and “[the dogs] allay their boredom with constant, high-pitched barking.” And she was right. My personal voice had slipped into Doodle’s.  I changed “inextricably” to “tangled around” and “allay” to “ward off”.

Word choice matters.  Nothing throws me out of a story more quickly than a character, especially a point of view character, using a word that is, well, out of character. If your highly educated narrator suddenly says “That ain’t so,” it will jar. If your prehistoric character uses the word “steeled” when steel has not yet been invented, I’m gone.  Or, at least I will be if it happens too many times in the same book.

Consider Gabriel, the black and tan hound I mentioned earlier. His narration begins “We heard the truck before we seen it, a dull ugly rumble that grew louder by the second. And we seen its dust rising over the trees and laurels. I raised my head and blinked, but like the other hounds, thought it weren’t nothing worth getting off the porch for.” If Gabriel suddenly started using perfect grammar and a college level vocabulary, the illusion that this particular hound in this particular place is telling the story would be shattered.

So think about voice and word choice when you write.  And if you feel perhaps that the voice of your narrator is a little too generic to be compelling, study the fiction by your favorite authors to see how they make the narration and characters stick in your mind.  Make sure that not only your narrator, but all of your characters have distinct voices, distinct word choices and patterns based on their unique experiences. Your readers will thank you.

Susan J. Kroupa is a dog lover currently owned by a 70 pound labradoodle whose superpower is bringing home dead possums and raccoons and who happens to be the inspiration for her Doodlebugged books. She’s also an award-winning author whose fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, and in a variety of professional anthologies, including Bruce Coville's Shapeshifters. Her non-fiction publications include features about environmental issues and Hopi Indian culture for The Arizona Republic, High Country News, and American Forests.

Susan now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern Virginia, where she’s busy writing the next Doodlebugged mystery. You can find her books and read her blog at http://www.susankroupa.com and visit her Amazon Author page at http://amazon.com/author/susankroupa.


  1. Wonderful post about taking as much care with their vocabulary and the feel, speed of speech as with any human or fantasy character.
    Each dog has it's own personality, but our human perception of certain breeds is how we imagine them speaking in our heads. It makes all the difference to a story.

  2. Thanks! I agree. I think it's important whether or not the narrator is human or animal. I often put a book down when the characters all have identical, generic voices.

  3. Very good advice about word choice and how it affects characterization!

  4. It really is all about "getting inside the head" of your characters - no matter what they are! Love Doodle, and hope to see more of his adventures!

  5. Yes. I'm just getting inside of Doodle's brain and his characterization. Started reading last night. I found I had to be careful writing age appropriate vocabulary for my young YA novel. The dog in the story doesn't talk, but uses body langauge to express himself.

  6. Cara, thanks! Can't wait to see the Irish wolfhound--though I know he's not a pov character--in your novel!

  7. Lyn, thanks for the Doodle love! :)

  8. Sheri, interesting. Are you writing a YA dog mystery?

    I didn't worry about being age appropriate as far as vocabulary for the book, since it's being marketed as a cozy as well as middlegrade (I'm always genre-straddling, I'm afraid). I did worry about keeping the language consistent with Doodle's character, and working to make scent his primary focus.

  9. Hey Susan, just checking in so you don't feel lonely. Have a great day.

  10. The late Rhodry Malamutt never narrated a book, but he did have several email correspondences and he contributed several posts to an old blog of mine. He didn't use contractions. I'm not sure why. Travvy doesn't mind them.

  11. Susanna, I remember some Rhodry's emails long ago. I loved them! They helped inspire me, years later, to use a dog narrator for the Doodlebugged books. Of course, Doodle AND Shadow are beyond jealous that Travvy has his own FB account.

  12. Susan, thanks for being here. Narrative voice is always an interesting subject, and when you cross species lines, even more so.