Strong ‘Voice’ in YA fantasy

As discussed here, YA fantasy is often told as though in the head and present moment of a teen character.  This character tends to be reasonably unobtrusive to allow the reader to essentially imagine they are the character, creating an immersive experience.  In extreme cases the character is little more than a shell or avatar to enter the fantasy.

(The typical POV and voice of adult fantasy is slightly different and is discussed here, and an explanation of what POV and voice means is here.)

What would a strong, obvious voice in a YA fantasy look like?   I have come up with some examples that I think illustrate how it could work.  Some of them are not YA and some are not fantasy, but they are still examples that read to me as examples of things that could be done in YA fantasy.

First up is the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud, which is actually YA fantasy.  The opening chapter is told through the first person voice of a demon summoned by the protagonist to do its bidding:

The kid spoke. Very Squeakily. ‘I charge you… to… to…’ Get on with it! ‘…t-t-tell me your n-name.’

That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew and I knew that he knew my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab – you don’t get just anybody when you call.

I chose a rich, deep, dark chocolatey sort of voice, the kind that resounds from everywhere and nowhere and makes the hairs stand up on the back of inexperienced necks.

‘BARTIMAEUS.’

I saw the kid give a strangled kind of gulp when he heard the word. Good – he wasn’t entirely stupid then: he knew who and what I was. He knew my reputation.

After taking a moment to swallow some accumulated phlegm he spoke again. ‘I-I charge you again to answer. Are you that B-Bartimaeus who in olden times was summoned by the magicians to repair the walls of Prague?’

What a time-water this kid was. Who else would it be?

This is a clever strategy, in that it allows the writer to go nuts with the witty commentary and giving the fantasy story an original perspective, without affecting the likability of the protagonist. The story switches between this first person narrative, and a third person perspective of the protagonist, which allows for the reader to inhabit a more emotional space with the protagonist as well.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is another fantasy with a strong voice, following a teen protagonist. It is not marketed as YA due to its extremely dark subject matter, but is stylistically very similar to YA in other respects.  Obviously part of the reason this character is interesting is shock value, and you would lose some of that by making the character’s thoughts less R-rated, but it illustrates that an unlikeable character with a strong voice can still be interesting.

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows-post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.

The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, come peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.

‘Water! Water!’ It’s always water with the dying. Strange, it’s killing that gives me thirst.

And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it.

War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing.

Lawrence has said that Prince of Thorns was inspired by A Clockwork Orange, which is also an example of a strong voice with a slightly fantastical premise.

An example of a strong YA voice in historical fiction is Catherine Jinks’ Pagan’s Crusade, which plays against the conventions and expectations of historical fiction by using minimalism:

A big man in brown, sitting behind a table. Big hands. Big chest. Short and broad. Head like a rock, face scarred like a battleaxe. He looks up and sees — what’s this? A street urchin? Whatever it is, it’s trouble. Trouble advances cautiously.

‘They said I should report to the Standard-Bearer.’

The big man nods.

‘You can call me sir,’ he says. (Voice like gravel rattling in a cast-iron pot.) He pulls out a quill pen. ‘Name?’ he says.

‘Pagan.’

Rockhead smells rich and rare, like a well-matured piece of cheese. No baths for the Templars. Hot water is for girls and porridge and other soft, wet things. If a Templar wants a bath he can go and stand in the rain. That’s what God put if there for.

‘And where did you come from, Kidrouk?’ (The unspoken question: out of a slop bucket?) Rockhead is highly suspicious. You can see what he’s thinking. Just look at this runt! Spells like the Infidel, and looks like a bedouin boy. Skin the colour of braised almonds. Built like a horsewhip. Black hair. Black eyes. What in the name of God is this Order coming to? We’ll be recruiting stray dogs next.

As an adult, I think this is fantastic writing. As a young teen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It is minimalist to the point of being cryptic.  I probably mostly stuck with it because it was not a long book to stick with and because I loved historical fiction, but I would have been just as happy if not more happy with a neutral character, more descriptions, and less witty asides. The other kids at school who read it were even less forgiving than me, finding Pagan’s voice ridiculous: It was sooo stupid. Christ in a cream cheese sauce? Who says that?

Pagan’s Crusade illustrates that a strong voice narrating an unfamiliar world can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers a much more original story. On the other, you have to work a lot harder to understand what is going on. If Pagan’s Crusade was a fantasy and not about the Crusades, it would be even harder to decipher. You can bring prior knowledge of the Crusades to reading the novel, so words like Templar, Infidel, and bedouin already have meaning. If your entire knowledge of the situation had to be derived from Pagan’s narration, it could become frustratingly obtuse.

In Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, the narrator is a young British spy who has been captured by the Nazi’s, and her narration cushions the reader with more explanations than Pagan’s, and is not shocking like Jorg or Bartimaeus, but still has a sense of personality:

Von Linden has said I have two weeks and that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to.

Von Linden resembles Captain Hook in that he is rather an upright sort of gentleman in spite of his being a brute, and I am quite Pan-like in my naive confidence that he will play by the rules and keep his word. So far, he has. To start off my confession, he gave me this lovely creamy embossed stationery from the Chateau de Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Castle Hotel, which is what this building use to be. (I would not have believed a French hotel could become so forbiddingly bleak if I had not seen the barred shutters and padlocked doors with my own eyes. But you have also managed to make the whole beautiful city of Ormaie look bleak.)

It is rather a lot to be resting on a single code set, but in addition to my treasonous account I have also promised von Linden my soul, although I do not think he takes this seriously. Anyway, it will be a relief to write anything that isn’t connected with code. I’m so dreadfully sick of spewing wireless code. Only when we’d put all those lists to paper did I realise what a huge supply of code I do actually have in me.

It’s jolly astonishing, really.

YOU STUPID NAZI BASTARDS.

I’m just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you do to enemy agents.

I have mixed feelings about how well this narrator works.  The character has views and opinions, but they are not views and opinions that give me a strong sense that she has an interesting personality.  She’s in an interesting situation to be sure, but the fact she dislikes Nazi’s could describe just about everyone.  Reading Peter Pan, being slightly defiant, and casually using ‘jolly’ tell us she’s British, but that’s about it.  The fact she likes quality stationery is also not particularly interesting.  I felt that the narration didn’t sound convincingly like what it was supposed to be, which was the narrator’s response to her captors insisting she write down everything she knew – that is, they wanted specific information for military purposes.  Were they really happy to keep providing her with stationery and time to write this meandering, insulting memoir?  It reads like the character’s internal thoughts, not what they’d actually have the opportunity to write down in this situation.

Having read the whole book, I’m aware that there are plot reasons for adopting this POV.  What there are not plot reasons for is why the writing sounds like it’s been calmly written by a writer who has time to write every thought that goes through a character’s head, and who is not being held prisoner by the Nazis.  Still, it’s worth reading because it plays with voice and POV to create an unreliable narrator and use this to effect.

Contemporary YA fiction is much more likely than fantasy or historical YA to feature characters with strong voices that are nevertheless pretty ordinary, sympathetic, relatable people. This is assisted to some extent by accessing experiences and cultural references that the reader can recognise, but it can also be done on its own terms.

For example, the very popular John Green writes in third person in An Abundance of Katherines. It is a third person with a strong sense of commentary, and this commentary doesn’t necessarily rely on pop culture references, for example:

Colin took a deep breath and slid down, immersing his head. I am crying, he thought, opening his eyes to stare through the soapy, stinging water. I feel like I am crying, so I must be crying, but it’s impossible to tell because I’m underwater. But he wasn’t crying. Curiously, he felt too depressed to cry. Too hurt. It felt as if she’d taken the part of him that cried.

He opened the drain in the tub, stood up, towelled off, and got dressed. When he exited the bathroom, his parents were sitting together on his bed. It was never a good sign when both his parents were in his room at the same time. Over the years it had meant:

1. Your grandmother/grandfather/Aunt-Suzie-whom-you-never-met-but-trust-me-she-was- nice-and-it’s-a-shame is dead.

2. You’re letting a girl named Katherine distract you from your studies.

3. Babies are made through an act that you will eventually find intriguing but for right now will just sort of horrify you, and also sometimes people do stuff that involves baby-making parts that does not actually involve making babies, like for instance kiss each other in places that are not on the face.

It never meant:

4. A girl named Katherine called while you were in the bathtub. She’s sorry. She still loves you and has made a terrible mistake and is waiting for you downstairs.

But even so, Colin couldn’t help but hope that his parents were in the room to provide news of the Number 4 variety.

Apart from the modern plumbing, you could use this passage in a fantasy novel, and it would not obstruct the reader from enjoying the story.  It has a sense of personality, but the personality works to draw the reader in through relatable observations, rather than to create a sense of separateness between the narrator and the reader.

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