Dear Story Nurse,
I’m struggling with voice on this particular project. The protagonist is a Yankee girl in the South during World War II. It’s a young adult historical fantasy and I want the character to sound young and naive, but without alienating the likely older-YA readers who will pick up the book. Over the course of the book, she should grow up quite a bit and confront her own assumptions and mistakes, but at the beginning, she’s off-putting to readers. I can’t tell if this is on me (the voice just isn’t working for whatever reason) or if it’s uncomfortable/unusual to have a bubbly almost stream-of-consciousness female voice in a historical fantasy and that’s what is throwing my beta readers off? I’ve tried rewriting the beginning of the novel differently but I keep coming back to the original version. Thoughts? Thank you in advance!
Thanks for writing in. This is one of those questions that’s hard to definitively answer without seeing the manuscript, so I’m going to noodle around some ideas about what might be going on here, and some of those ideas will be useful to you and some won’t. Fortunately, saying “Nope, that’s not the problem I’m having” can be its own kind of useful troubleshooting sometimes, and I hope it is in this case.
It sounds to me as though you suspect the problem is with the character being “young and naive” and making a lot of “assumptions and mistakes.” Are you, as a writer, comfortable with those things being true of her? Take a while to go back through your original plan for the book and remember why you made the choice to design the character that way, and then look at the book as it is now and consider whether the choice still makes sense. Books often change quite a lot as you’re writing them and the book you’ve written may require a somewhat different protagonist than was called for in your original outline. Maybe someone who’s currently a side character should actually be the star of the show.
Also, writers change, and stories look different in retrospect. You may have thought that writing about a clueless Yankee girl bumbling around the South sounded like great fun, but now the humor feels clunky; you may have wanted to tell an earnest story about growing up, only to have it feel trite and clichéd; you may have gotten so invested in the historical side of the story that you no longer care about the fantasy side. If that’s the case, change the parts of the story that ring false to you or no longer hold your interest.
One of the most important things that the opening of a book can do is set reader expectations. What do your beta readers expect from the book based on those early chapters? In particular, do they expect that the protagonist will continue to be naive, or that she’ll grow up? Maybe you need to do more to show at least her potential for realizing her errors and becoming a better person. She doesn’t have to be perfect, but she has to be someone your readers want to spend time with.
You mention that when you rewrite the beginning, you always come back to your original draft. Listen to that intuition—clearly that section of the story is calling to you in a strong, personal way—but don’t let it stop you from making significant changes to the shape of the book so that people other than you can be pulled into it and enjoy it. The part that’s currently the beginning may need to be the middle, for example; if you preface it with an opener that’s a little catchier or that explains why your protagonist acts the way she does, that could hook the readers who are currently feeling put off, and by the time they get to the section of the book that you like so much, they’ll like it as much as you do.
Or you may need to accept that you’ve written that beginning section for yourself, and set it aside to reread whenever you like, and write a new beginning of the book—ideally from scratch so you don’t keep seeing the ghosts of the other one—that does more for your readers, who lack your personal context and connection. This can be painful and hard, but it’s one of the tradeoffs we make when we create art for people other than ourselves.
As for your protagonist’s voice, there are a number of variables in your book that influence it:
- Her positions on various axes of privilege/marginalization: gender, race, dis/ability, sexual/romantic orientation, trans status, class, age, religion, access to magical power, etc.
- Her origins: where she grew up, what her family and friends are like, what experiences have particularly affected her.
- Her era.
- Her location, and how it relates to her place of origin.
And two more that influence how you depict her:
- Your use of first-person narration.
- Your expectation of what YA readers want.
So if you want to do some science on your manuscript, one place to start is by changing each of those variables, one at a time. Take a fairly short, self-contained scene from early on in the book and rewrite it with the protagonist as a teen boy, as a different race, as an adult woman or a young girl, as a native Southerner, as more wealthy or poor, as more or less magically gifted; with her family more kind or more abusive, with more or fewer friends, with or without a particular formative experience; with the same events happening in the present day, and/or near the protagonist’s home in the Northeast; with third-person narration; and as though you were writing for adults. You don’t have to try all of these, of course, but try a handful (and pay attention to which ones you don’t want to try and your reasons for that).
Observe your own comfort or discomfort with each of the variations you write. You may find that you’re much happier writing a present-day story, or writing about an adult. Listen to yourself and write what feels good. Or you may find it extremely hard to write the protagonist as a boy or as upper-class, to the point where it feels like writing some other book entirely; that tells you how important her class and gender are to the story, and you’ll know not to mess with those factors when you’re making other changes.
If a variation barely varies from the original at all, then that’s a signal to you that you haven’t thoroughly integrated that particular element into the story. For example, if the language the protagonist uses for her inner narration is the same regardless of whether the story takes place in 1945 or 2015, that suggests that your historical era is pretty thinly sketched; if your Yankee girl behaves the same way in New York as she does in Georgia, then your story isn’t grounded in its setting (or in the disorientation of being far from home in a place with unfamiliar customs).
Once you’ve written all of those variations on the scene, send them to one of your beta readers who found the character off-putting and ask whether any of the changes goes some way toward fixing the problem. If they say no, then you may be looking at a more fundamental story issue such as an unlikable protagonist or a plot that doesn’t hold together. If they say yes, you can use this pinpointing of the source of the reader’s discomfort to inform your revisions. There are always two ways that can go. The beta reader saying “I like this scene a lot better when the protagonist is an eight-year-old girl rather than a teen! Her obliviousness makes more sense now!” could lead you to rewrite the book with a younger protagonist, or to make the teen protagonist more clueful. Either way, you fix the issue of her behavior not matching her stated age.
Finally, a specific note on voice in first-person historical fiction: I urge you to immerse yourself in primary sources from the relevant time and place. Read as many diaries and letters as you can get your hands on, especially ones written by people of your protagonist’s gender, race, age, and class. A few minutes of searching turned up this charming WWII-era diary of a young woman who lived in Chicago (“Shakespeare makes the awfullest puns—worse than Jack Benny—really!”); I’m sure many others are out there. Museums and historical societies in the place your book is set may be able to help you get local documents. Nothing will do more to make your story feel real than drawing on the words of people who lived there then.
Good luck with untangling the intersections of what you’re driven to write, what your genre requires, and what your readers expect. It’s a challenge, but I think you’ll do just fine. Happy writing!